Activists, students, individuals free from attachment to political parties, all are tirelessly taking part in demonstrations to create change. Thailand’s reputation in maintaining relative international peace doesn’t account for the massive political unrest those at home are burdened with. Reform movements in response to the government’s tyrannical policies have erupted since the beginning of 2020. Furthering successful change is possible, although constant persistence is needed. Before touching on the specifics of protest and demonstrations in Thailand, we must analyze the present situation of the country; unfortunately, it is not looking bright thus far.
Currently, despite overseeing proper containment of the coronavirus, the collapse of tourism has unfortunately led to a monumental gap between the rich and poor. Additionally, the dissolution of a new and dynamic pro-democracy political party called the Future Forward Party (FFP) has resulted in a sense of military-dominance in the political system. This has caused the people to be denied an active voice in government especially because the rise of this new political party initially offered young citizens attraction for their support and an opportunity for change. The downfall of this party was due to the abduction and murder of a Thai activist in Cambodia. The public’s response was “blamed by some on elements close to the palace, and then by the dropping of all criminal charges against a member of one of Thailand’s wealthiest families over the killing of a police officer in a hit-and-run incident eight years ago.” Furthermore, in terms of leadership, since the COVID-19 crisis began, the present king of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has spent almost all of his time residing in Germany, leading to the circulation of a Twitter hashtag ‘#whydoweneedaking?’ that was reposted over a million times.
Presently, the latest waves of protests began in February after the dissolving of the FFP (mentioned above) due to a court order. Protests were halted because of Thailand’s national state of emergency surrounding COVID-19 restrictions, but tensions rose again in June after Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent activist living in Cambodia in exile since 2014, went missing. The Thai Government denied involvement in his disappearance, although this is widely believed to be false. Due to the outrage that resulted, protests resumed on July 18 and have continued daily since then. In early August, Parit Chiwarak, a prominent student leader, was arrested and faces charges including sedition, assault, and organizing an event that violated social distancing guidelines. This information has helped to conclude what participation in protests may mean in terms of safety and risk for the demonstrators.
Three significant events have shaped the ongoing protests: the plaque, the queen’s motorcade, and the deploying of the Water Cannons. First, in September 2020, thousands of protesters gathered in Bangkok for the largest pro-democracy rally so far. After the rally, a group placed a plaque near the royal palace displaying the three-finger salute and a message. This salute indicated the people’s belief that Thailand belongs to them and not to the monarchy. Officials removed the plaque. Then on October 14, during a protest in Bangkok, a limousine carrying Queen Vajiralongkorn unexpectedly passed a crowd of protesters who yelled “my taxes” and gave the same three-finger salute. As a result, many protesters were arrested and faced penalties under an obscure law, deeming it illegal to “show any act of violence against the queen’s liberty.” Additionally, the government issued an emergency decree banning the gathering of 4 or more people and authorized sanctions on media outlets to spread misinformation pertaining to the protests. Finally, on October 16, protests that were being held on commercial streets in Bangkok were dispersed with the use of water cannons by the police. Protesters, who ignored the decree put in place after the Queen’s Motorcade, were sprayed with blue dye and chemical irritant. “Mr. Prayut revoked the emergency decree on Oct. 22 after realizing Thailand would not become a ‘better society through the use of a water cannon.” These are the conditions protesters have to endure in order to speak their minds and fight for justice. The fact that this issue has received little media attention is appalling. But if there are protests, who is organizing them?
Anon Nampa, the first person to break the taboo of silencing rebellion. He currently serves as a human rights lawyer who spoke about the need for reform; instead of overthrowing the constitutional monarchy, he advocates for focusing on the huge assets of the Crown Property Bureau. These assets were held in trust for the benefit of the Thai people under late King Bhumibol, but currently, they have been declared the personal property of the king, making him the wealthiest person in Thailand. This has led to questioning and uncertainty regarding his decisions to take personal command of all military units based in Bangkok, believed to be incompatible with a democratic, constitutional monarchy. Although for this outreach, Anon Nampa and Panupong Jaadnok, another activist, have been arrested on charges of breaking Thailand’s sweeping sedition law, dictating that any individual who criticizes the royal family shall be served with long prison sentences. After the arrest, far from silencing talk about the monarchy, Nampa and Jaadnok’s demands have been taken up by a student movement who has been pushing for change on campuses across the country. Here are some student protesters’ thoughts:
The problem is that the older generation is not willing or attempting to understand students’ desires; most young people support the government, but have opposing views for the distribution of powers. Students believe the three pillars of Thailand - nation, religion, and monarchy - should be revered, not brought down to be played with. They do not desire to fight, but instead, they wish to show their perspective. With a government composed of mostly conservative military and royalist figures, they are uncertain how to respond as too harsh of a reaction could risk angering the public that is already frustrated over other issues. However, the government also does not want to be seen failing to defend their monarchy. This phrase embodies the inner conflict: "Society won't stop, change won't stop. The only thing we can do is to take care that the change takes place with as little bloodshed as possible. They have been gossiping about the monarchy in private for years, then teaching their children to praise it lavishly in public, to be hypocrites. All these young protesters have done is bring that gossip out into the open."
A question may arise directed towards why students are the ones explicitly protesting. There are three main demands: parliament should be dissolved, the constitution should be rewritten, and the authorities need to stop harassing critics. Students, being a new generation full of drive, hope, and change, are the perfect face for the movement. Additionally, the reason the dissolution of the FFP caused so much unrest was because it garnered the third-largest share of seats and was very popular among first-time voters, which encouraged students to participate. This movement is largely leaderless but is instead driven by a group known as the Free Youth. The Free Youth is loosely composed of many university student associations that have strategically chosen to remain decentralized and without a leader. Those participating in Thailand protests have learned from the demonstrators in the Hong Kong protests that groups should resemble free individuals coming together instead of those attached to certain organizations or political parties.
Furthermore, pro-democracy and anti-China protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan call themselves the “Milk Tea Alliance”, inspiring creativity in the ways that Thai people have protested. This creativity includes protesters taking the Hamtaro theme song (from a Japanese storybook series) and changing its lyrics into an anti-government anthem. For example, one line originally writing, “the most delicious food is sunflower seeds” has been changed to a new line, “the most delicious food is taxpayers' money”. The three-fingered salute is a gesture taken from the Hunger Games film franchise, where it is a symbol of defiance against an authoritarian state. Some explanations for these symbols are: “That's because of years of living in repressive environments that do not always allow for freedom of expression. [They're] having to always find creative ways to get around all kinds of censorship.” These creative ways to protest have been thought of to symbolize unity and drive for fighting despite Thailand’s strict laws against self-expression. The small “flash mob” type of protests are easy to organize, quickly spread, and are used more in smaller cities. The power of technology and the media has helped the voice of those in Thailand be amplified.
Although, these protests have yet to make a big impact on their governmental structure and value of human rights, the increasing spread of justice and autonomy around the globe will continue to enlighten and encourage protesters in Thailand to keep fighting until justice has been served. A bright future is ahead for Thailanders and hopefully, by doing our part of spreading the news, the protesters will succeed in their venture for a true democracy.