Thailand Student Protests: Trouble in Paradise

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By EDEN FALL-BAILEY

Thailand. A land of beaches, bucket cocktails, and pro-democracy boycotts.


The Thai people endured a lot in 2020: Covid-19, the shutdown of their tourist-based economy, and the resurgence of pro-democracy protests against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.


With a long history of political turmoil and 12 military coups since 1932, younger generations of Thais are again protesting for constitutional re- form and a less authoritative monarchy. Following the 2014 military coup that placed Chan-o-cha in power, the 2019 general election was considered a chance for change by those exhausted by the undermining of democratic rights.


Nevertheless, hopes for progressive change in Thailand were crushed by the state-mandated dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP), an opposition party who won the third-largest share of seats in the 2019 general election, as FFP allegedly mishandled political funds. To young Thais, this seemed to extinguish the possibility of broadening the democratic institutions that they had demanded before the election. Consequently, thousands participated in demonstrations on academic campuses against the military government in February 2020. However, protests were halted by Thailand’s coronavirus state of emergency, conveniently implemented by Chan-o-cha in the wake of the pandemic.


More recently, protests have been fuelled again by the abduction of prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, where protestors accuse the state of coordinating the kidnap. The demonstrations, mainly organised through grassroots movements, have been attended by up to 100,000 Thais. Despite their peaceful marching, they have violently clashed with the military and the state police, who sought the usage of water cannons and alleged chemical sprays.


It is clear why younger progressives in Thailand have become weary of their political institutions and the monarchy, led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who, since his instalment in May 2019, has sought to extend his monarchical powers beyond their traditional reigns. Whether it's intervening in the drafting of the Thai constitution or assuming personal ownership of the Crown Property Bureau’s fortune, which was traditionally held in trust for the benefits of Thai people, the King's actions have been repeatedly questioned. Yet, with the lèse majesté laws in place, openly criticising the King’s actions is illegal in Thailand.


With Thailand being politically suffocated by Chan-o-cha and his constitution, enabling extensive military powers and silencing of dissent, student protest groups such as Free Youth have emulated the 3 finger salute to represent their quest for democracy, adopted from the Hunger Games. The 3 finger salute symbol dates back to 2014, when it was first used in defiance against General Prayut’s military coup. The salute was aggressively stifled by the government, with anyone who deployed it immediately arrested. The symbol came to represent liberty against the backdrop of authoritarianism.


Free Youth have also organised demands for the resignation of Chan-o-cha, the repealing of lèse majesté laws, and the reversal of King's constitutional powers. Yet, it is barely realistic for Thailand, with a history of such authoritative governance, to give in to the demands of students, especially since the protests are waning.


Many argue that these protests truly represent a clash between the older royalists and the younger progressives. With modern protesters adapting pop culture to the demonstrations, traditionalists demand an end to themed rallies.


Moreover, as a result of the pandemic, 8.3 million Thais are estimated to be facing job losses, mostly employees in the tourism and service industry, which produces 7% of Thailand’s annual GDP. Growing anger over the government’s inability to meet students' demands, harsher restrictions on demonstrations, and state-mandated curfews have culminated in divisions among protesters, and the main disagreements are on how to proceed. Student protesters linked to the Thammasat University have distanced themselves from the movement, indicating that the protests will soon start to dwindle as fast as they arose.


Chan-o-cha has refused to step down and has continued to clamp down on protesters through the lèse majesté laws, with over 100 protesters charged under the criminal act. Despite this, Prayut’s government has made concessions over re-drafting the Thai constitution, signalling that the pressures of the pandemic alongside students' insistence have forced Chan-o-cha to act decisively.


Despite students making up most of the protests, they rely heavily on support from hospitality workers who are fed up with the country’s economic crises. What is more likely is that as Thailand’s economy starts to recover, people most affected by the virus’s devastating economic effects will shift their focus away from political matters and start to rebuild their lives. With Thailand beginning to reopen to tourists, support for students will most likely wane.


Image - Flickr (Royal Palace/Handout)

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