Prachatai, 29 October 2020
When did the current protests start and what are demonstrators calling for?
The first wave of protests started in February 2020 in response to the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, the third-largest political party in Thailand which won 6 million votes in the 2019 election out of 35.5 million votes. The dissolution of the party was widely thought to have been politically motivated. The protests’ momentum briefly stalled between March and June because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the government’s COVID-19 Emergency Decree.
The second wave of the protests this year started around June and July. Protestors gathered despite the Emergency Decree after it was reported in early June that Wanchalearm “Tar” Satsaksit, a pro-democracy activist in exile, was abducted in Cambodia.
This was a pivotal moment for the Thai protest movement as the abduction triggered the protestors to start formulating their demands. Social and economic problems, such as income disparity, an authoritarian culture in the Thai education system and household debt, have piled up in the last 15 years, and two military coups in 2006 and 2014 have been referenced during the protests.
As demonstrators have said: “Let it end in our generation.”
In July, the protestors’ main three demands which were put forward included the dissolution of what they call an illegitimate parliament, ending threats against citizens and drafting a new constitution. In August, the democratic movement added a radical element by calling for monarchy reform in a Harry Potter-themed protest. Anon Nampa, a 34-year-old lawyer, openly called for reform of the monarchy including an amendment to laws regarding the power of the monarchy. It was the first time in Thai history that the protestors had brought up this topic in public. Following his public statements, Nampa has faced several charges including sedition and violation of the Emergency Decree. He was arrested on 15 October and denied his bail.
In September, protestors stepped up their demands after an announcement from Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party), a reincarnation of the political movement which overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932. The new Khana Ratsadon called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the drafting of a new constitution and monarchy reform.
Activist groups have also brought core issues to the platform, including LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, military reform, environmental problems and community rights, economic inequality, freedom of speech, violence in schools by teachers, conflict in the deep south of the country, revision of political history, monopoly of the alcohol industry, political exiles and prisoners, political apathy of celebrities, and biased coverage against political dissidents by mainstream media.
Who is leading or organising the protests? Who is participating? How can I get involved or support demonstrators?
The Thai protests have become known for their leaderless organisation. The organisers and participants include students, human rights groups, celebrities, the red shirts who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, labour unions and other loosely structured groups.
Participating students largely come from universities, high schools and vocational schools, with university students being among the most vocal groups taking part in the current protests. Influential groups include Free Youth, United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), Mor Ka Set (Kasetsart University), Mahanakorn for Democracy Group and UNME group. Important figures include Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak (22), Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul (22) from UFTD, Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree from Free Youth, Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa (29) from UNME, and Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon (25) from Mahanakorn for Democracy Group.
High school students have been largely led by a group named “Bad Students.” The Bad Students held protests against Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan in September 2020 calling for an end to harassment against students, reform of outdated regulations and reform of the entire education system. The group’s name was partly derived from Bad Students in So Good Education System, a Thai book written by student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal.
Vocational students have traditionally been stigmatised in Thai society because of the government’s negligence and tendency to budget for high school and university education rather than vocational institutions. They are known for staunch loyalty to their institutions, which has sometimes led to violent confrontations between their conflicting groups and schools. But, thanks to their assertiveness, they have contributed to the movement by volunteering as protestor guards.
The dissolution of the Future Forward Party, whose main supporters are young voters, was the trigger which led to the first round of protests in February.
Human rights groups, both local and international, have also played a role in the current protests by providing assistance to those who have been arrested. These groups include Democracy Restoration Group, iLaw, Amnesty International Thailand and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, as well as various LGBTQ-focused groups. iLaw collected 100,732 signatures from citizens from August to September 2020 to request constitutional amendments from parliament, pushing forward their “People’s Version” draft of a revised constitution. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights are the main organisation providing legal support to political activists.
Some Thai celebrities openly support the movement. Chaiamorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan is one of the protest leaders who was himself arrested. Inthira “Sine” Charoenpura famously helped collect donations and provide food for protestors in September. Some members of the BNK48 pop band have written about their support for the movement. The list of pro-democracy celebrities is growing but some remain in support of the authoritarian government, and Twitter users have generated hashtags to target celebrities who openly support the government.
The pro-Thaksin red shirts have also joined the current pro-democracy protests. Even though their Pheu Thai Party does not include monarchy reform in their agenda, red shirt protestors joined the protests as they find some of the protestors’ demands compatible with their political platform. Student protestors have drawn support from the red shirt groups by praising them as a pioneer group which fought for democracy in previous years.
Trade unions have also joined hands with protestors to demand better working conditions and decent minimum wages. However, some doctors, academics, motorcycle-taxi drivers, entrepreneurs and specialists such as IT workers and other professionals do not have unions of their own, but belong to loosely structured groups. Some do not group together by occupational category, but by hashtags, Facebook pages and other groups on social media.
There are also other loosely structured groups which intertwine with the international community. At least 30 groups of K-pop fans in Thailand held a donation campaign in mid-October and donated 4.05 million baht (about US$130,000) to the democratic movement. Many Thais held protests abroad in solidarity with the protestors in Thailand. Protestors’ #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag has helped fans of the beverage share their democratic aspirations with like-minded people across borders in Hong Kong and Taiwan too.
The best way to support the protestors is to spread accurate information about the movement to raise awareness, and raise morale by joining their protests in your area, if there is one, at home or abroad.
What social, economic and political conditions in Thailand were the precursor to these protests?
The political conditions in Thailand are in bad shape after two military coups in 2006 and 2014 as elites framed their political opponents as anti-monarchy and seized power for their own gains. The government has been facing a crisis of legitimacy after the royal succession from the late King Bhumibol to his son King Vajiralongkorn in 2016.
After being pressured by the people, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged and came to power in a 2014 military coup, passed the 2017 Constitution through a questionable referendum and held an election in 2019. Even then, the political system was still deliberately designed in favour of the elites. The unelected 250 senators were given the power to vote for a prime minister together with 500 elected members of the House of Representatives.
The election commission, constitutional court, ombudsmen, and other independent bodies were also appointed by the military junta and the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand, resulting in an unfair election result and dissolution of two opposition parties, including Thai Raksa Chart Party (Thai Save the Nation Party) and the Future Forward Party in 2019 and 2020. The dissolution of the Future Forward Party, whose main supporters are young voters, was the trigger which led to the first round of protests in February.
Meanwhile, Thailand is facing economic decline and rising inequality. Thailand is among the 10 most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth distribution. More Thais can access basic social services than in the past, but fewer can access high-quality services, including entering a good university and getting premium healthcare. According to an analysis, “as much as 10% of the population may have fallen into chronic poverty.”
Judging from the protestors’ demands, now is just the beginning of the democratic struggle on the street.
The situation worsened after the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. In June, the World Bank estimated that Thailand’s economy would contract by 5% this year—“among the sharpest projected declines in the East Asia and Pacific Region.” Economic growth will take two years to recover. Protestors have complained that the Emergency Decree in response to COVID-19 was used against political dissidents rather than dealing with the virus.
Meanwhile, the younger generation does not see the world like it used to. Thanks to social media and changing cultural landscapes, students have started questioning hierarchical social institutions, including families, schools, religion, the military and the monarchy. It used to be taken for granted that subordinates always respect the higher-ups in these institutions, but now there is a movement towards youth and subordinates no longer obeying the higher-ups if they do not deserve it.
Who or what institutions are being targeted by protestors? Why?
The monarchy is challenged by the protestors as they question its privileges which have exceeded democratic boundaries, such as editing the Constitution that has passed the questionable 2017 referendum, appointing personal troops and transforming the crown assets into personal assets.
As they demand constitutional amendments, protestors have also attacked the political system which supports the current government, including the unelected senators, the “independent” bodies appointed by the junta and the government coalition parties who voted for Prayut to be prime minister. The coalition government has also failed to deliver its proposed policies, focusing mainly on consolidating its grip on power, demonstrators say
Due to the organic nature of the pro-democracy movement, protestors have questioned all social institutions which serve as pillars of authoritarianism in Thailand, including families, schools, religions, the military, police, monarchy, businesses, parliament, ultra-royalist groups and even the entertainment industry. Both offline and online campaigns have been staged against these institutions, calling on them to transform and be more liberal and democratic.
How has the government responded to the mass demonstrations?
The main method in handling the protests since July 2020 is micro-repression: tracking, surveilling, arresting, and prosecuting unarmed protestors and influential figures in the movement. Authorities have also targeted stage organisers, toilet truck providers, sound truck providers and helmet producers, all of which provide services to the protestors. Seeing these actions as unfair treatment of citizens, people continue to join the protests.
To prevent more people from joining, the government has tried to limit public anger by temporarily releasing political activists, only to arrest them again not long after their release. At the same time, authorities also tried, with the help of pro-government media outlets, to demonise the protestors as illegal, violent and anti-monarchy to legitimise a violent crackdown.
For example, on 14 October 2020, the government set the royal motorcade’s route to overlap with protest sites in Bangkok and then accused activists of harming the Queen’s liberty. One day after the incident, the government announced a severe state of emergency and cracked down on protestors, using water cannons infused with dye and chemical irritants.
The severe state of emergency was lifted on 22 October 2020, resulting in people re-joining protests in even larger numbers, with up to 30,000 protestors across all protest sites in Bangkok each day. However, their demands remain unmet. Prayut has not resigned. The government promised to push forward the constitutional amendments, but no action was taken. Government coalitions announced to uphold the monarchy instead of reform.
Are protests only happening in Bangkok?
Protests have taken place nationwide.
Some have taken place in academic domains like in universities and schools. Some have been held at provincial landmarks like ones in Nakhon Ratchasima, the largest city in the north-east of Thailand, where people gathered around Ya Mo statues, a legendary heroine figure.
What is concerning is that protests in provinces outside Bangkok receive much less media coverage, making the protestors there more vulnerable to police arrest. Persecution has taken place in almost every province as protests are monitored by uniformed and plain-clothed police officers.
Some protestors who have spoken critically about the monarchy have been pursued to their homes and forced by authorities to sign agreements not to speak about it again.
What will likely be the result of the protests? Is there any end in sight?
Judging from the protestors’ demands, now is just the beginning of the democratic struggle on the street. It is hard to speculate the future of the movement due to its horizontal structure and organic nature.
A special parliamentary meeting session on 26-27 October was unable to break ongoing political tensions, as Prayut Chan-ocha denied calls for his resignation. Meanwhile protestors marched on the German embassy in Bangkok on 26 October to press Berlin to look into whether the King had violated German sovereignty by exercising his powers on German soil, including the declared state of emergency and the arrest of activists.
Any political incident that would lead to public discontent could be a potential factor to drive people to the streets again. On the other hand, counter-protests by state-sponsored pro-monarchy groups have been increasing following protests on 14 October. This means that there is a possibility of confrontation between the different groups as the ultra-royalist groups perceive the pro-democracy protestors as a threat to the existence of the monarchy.
So far, state violence is unlikely to end the movement. According to Prayut, parliament is expected to be the way out of this deadlock. An uncontrollable confrontation between people of different ideologies may create conditions that would prompt other institutions to intervene, such as the military or the monarchy, with the latter holding a peacekeeping role in the past. Still, the movement’s outcome may be completely unexpected and different from the past.
What do protestors say a successful outcome would be?
The protestors have a common vision for the future: Thailand as a constitutional monarchy with its sovereignty belonging to the people. The monarchy and the military shall continue to exist, but with power under check by genuine liberal and democratic institutions where everyone is treated with respect and freedom of speech is protected.
To that end, some of the protestors want the government coalition parties to withdraw from the cabinet to pressure Prayut to resign. They have also held large protests to pressure the unelected senators to approve the constitutional amendments and, if possible, resign to pave the way for political reform.
They also want the government to free arrested protestors without adding more charges. Meanwhile, the younger generation is transforming cultural beliefs and practices, including not standing up to pay respect to the King before watching films at cinemas, not attending graduation ceremonies and questioning the decisions of parents and teachers.
Even though protestors want the problems to end in their generation, all these changes will take time.