Thailand is undergoing the sixth episode of mass protests that have evolved from the long-standing struggle between pro- and anti-establishment supporters since 2005. The main difference between the current uprising and previous demonstrations is the younger generation taking the lead in resisting what they deem as authoritarian persistence.
What Is Happening In Thailand
Initial student protests emerged shortly before the Thai government imposed the COVID-19-related lockdown. In February 2020, the Constitutional Court – a pivotal ally of the establishment comprising the palace, military elites, conservative bureaucrats and allied business – disbanded the newly founded Future Forward Party (FFP). The latter represented the youthful hope for progressive politics based on equal rights and distribution, something that fundamentally contradicts the raison d’être of Thailand’s establishment. By gaining electoral traction in the 2019 election, the FFP therefore threatened the establishment elites who have rallied behind the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP). Through constitutional manipulation, the PPP received the majority of votes, thus currently leading the ruling coalition.
As the lockdown has been eased – though the Emergency Decree declared since March 2020 remains in place – young protesters are back on the streets since mid-July. Their three demands are that the government and authorities stop harassing citizens, democratically amend the constitution and dissolve the incumbent parliament to pave the way for new elections. Corresponding with these demands is the three-finger salute protesters have taken from the Hollywood blockbuster, The Hunger Games, as the anti-dictatorship symbol. At the time of this writing, there have been almost 200 protest events across the country.
In terms of organisation, the youth-led mobilisation is characterised by ‘networked protests’ drawn on loose coordination between student associations across different campuses. As of early August 2020, the broad-based student movement, ‘Free Youth’ grew into the ‘Free People’ movement, consisting of a diverse array of activist groups. While sharing the three goals and co-organising major protest events, members of the ‘Free People’ movement remain autonomous in holding their own protests and addressing specific grievances. Moreover, Twitter has played a vital role in publicising protest events, galvanising ideas for ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ protest activities, mobilising crowds to the police station or the court in the face of arbitrary arrest of activists, and drawing international attention to the protests (e.g. via the hashtag #WhatIsHappeningInThailand). Lastly, witty sayings and the use of urban pop culture help attract public attention. Protesters’ self-made banners are satirical critiques of ruling elites. Some protest events are draw on absurdist humour and inspired by, for example, a popular Japanese manga, the fiction-turned film Harry Potter and a Thai comedy movie.
Drivers of the protests
Underlying ongoing protests is the widespread frustration with Thailand’s authoritarian persistence conducive to eroding rule of law, gross human rights violation, worsening inequality and economic mismanagement in the face of the pandemic. Ruling elites have effectively guarded the authoritarian political order against challengers that surged through the 1930s republican revolution, the 1970s communism and the 1990s democratic opening. Recently the establishment has, however, been distressed as popular support for democratic discourses have risen, in parallel with the emergence of the first programmatic party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and later the FFP. Ruling elites struck back at the challenging forces by launching military coups in 2006 and 2014, which nonetheless created serious backlashes against the authoritarian order. Many Thais, especially the youngsters, who endured the five-year military rule (2014-2019), have been fed up with authoritarian institutions and culture. They were hopeful that the 2019 March election would bring about democratic changes, but to no avail. The continuous leadership of the former coup maker, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, whom the PPP nominated as the Prime Minister, reflects the resilience of authoritarian order. As the unemployment is skyrocketing and the economy is collapsing in light of the pandemic, young people see their future slipping away through their fingers. Moreover, they have lost their trust in state institutions captured by authoritarian elites. Two incidents which reinforce this perception, serving as the last straw for protesters, were the court’s dropping of the hit-and-run charges against the Red Bull heir; and the authorities’ delayed investigation into the forced disappearance of an exiled pro-democracy activist. Student have been on the streets chanting “Enough is enough.”
As tensions are mounting, three scenarios are likely to take shape, depending on different decisions made by protesters, the opposition parties and ruling elites.
First, the government may concede to protesters’ demands, especially the constitutional reforms. But protesters could view the mere focus on this aspect as a tactic of pacification, thus pushing further for other sensitive issues, including monarchy reforms. Should this happen, we may then arrive at the second, and worst-case scenario in which hawkish factions within the regime find a justification to suppress protesters with forces – as happened before in Thailand. However, considering the regime’s current legitimacy deficits and rising questions about the palace, military solutions are risky as miscalculation may provoke more people on the streets.
That brings us to the third and most likely scenario: a standoff. Regime figures will play good cops, bad cops. While some may promise to meet protesters’ demands, others will continue with discreet forms of repression, including harsh lawsuits, targeted attacks of leading activists and smearing campaigns against entire protest movements. However, this time around protesters are resolute; episodes of intimidation may not effectively hinder them. Therefore, we could be in for a long stalemate.