Since February 2020, tens of thousands of predominantly young people in Thailand have been organizing mass demonstrations on a regular basis against the pro-military government of General Prayuth Chanoca. It is the largest protest movement the country has seen since the 2014 military putsch. While the courageous and creative youth protests have become very popular, they are also facing increasing amounts of repression from the state.
Despite this brutal repression by security forces, protests for democracy and reforms still take place on an almost daily basis. In recent months some of the protestors have taken a more militant turn, and the previously non-violent protests are now being supplemented by forms of resistance that use violence as well.
Between Democracy, Monarchy, and Military Rule
Since the end of the absolute monarchy in the year 1932, Thailand has oscillated between phases of democratic government and military rule. Thailand is officially considered to be a constitutional monarchy whose king is mostly tasked with representative functions. In reality, the royal house intervenes in the country’s politics on a regular basis — especially when the democratically elected government is overthrown by the military. The royal house legitimized all 13 military coups after they had taken place.
The king of Thailand is the richest monarch in the world, with his total wealth estimated at 100 billion US dollars. His many privileges include private military units and an obscenely large allowance financed by public taxes. The monarchy is considered sacrosanct, and criticism of the king is suppressed by one of the strictest lèse majesté laws in the world, punishable by prison sentences of up to 15 years.
The military is the most important of the traditional power elites. The last coup carried out by the generals took place in May 2014, when they overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra. Hundreds of politicians and activists were interrogated, tortured, arrested; dozens avoided summonses to official hearings by fleeing abroad. The former prime minister was convicted of corruption in absentia. The military drafted a new constitution permanently guaranteeing its political influence — a senate composed of unelected senators from military circles now dominates the legislature. In August 2016, Thailand’s population approved the new constitution in a referendum.
In 2019 the long-promised elections took place, but they were neither free, fair, nor democratic. The existence of an unelected chamber in parliament was not the only problem: shortly before the elections, the Constitutional Court used a minor pretext to ban one of the main opposition parties. Irregularities in the counting of votes and the granting of mandates were also major concerns. As a result of these complications, the military government was able to maintain its hold on power.
Thailand’s Youth Resists
The fact that democracy was not restored to the country caused widespread dissatisfaction amongst the population. The constitutional court’s decision to ban the Future Forward Party (FFP) in February 2020 was the next major disappointment. The party’s programme and messaging particularly appealed to the youth, to city-dwellers, to the progressive elites, and especially to first-time voters. For millions of young citizens, the politically motivated ban on the FFP was the straw that broke the camel’s back, a sign that the means available to bring about change in the country had been exhausted.
The controversial FFP ban was followed by smaller protests at some universities and schools in the form of so-called flash mobs. However, these came to an abrupt end in April 2020, due to the lockdown. The youth protest movement was kicked off by an action on the campus of Thammasat University in Bangkok, organized by the Thai Students’ Association. Similar actions followed at more than 50 educational institutions across the country. Between 22 February and 14 March 2020, there were at least 79 flash mob protests. Following the lockdown, the protests were initially relegated to social media platforms, where internet users shared photos of themselves holding placards with anti-government slogans under the hashtag #mobfromhome.
The Monarchy Is at the Centre of Criticism
Numerous mistakes made by the government during the Coronavirus crisis, and the instrumentalization of laws prohibiting criticism of the government, stoked further resentment. Further indignation was aroused by the mysterious disappearance of Wanchalerm Satsaksit, a government critic living in exile in Cambodia. For many Thai citizens, this case made the brutality of the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices abundantly clear.
While the Thai people suffered from the drastic consequences of the pandemic measures and expected solidarity and encouragement from their king, pictures of his luxurious life in Germany circulated around the world. Criticism of the king became increasingly widespread. The hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing? went viral on social media, generating further protests.
Beginning in mid-July 2020, protests once again took to the streets. In contrast to the relatively small actions prior to the lockdown, the student protests now rapidly gained in popularity and support. After an initial mass rally for democracy in Bangkok, a nationwide youth protest movement emerged, led by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) students’ association and the “Free Youth”, a loose association of youth organizers. Between July and October 2020, there were well over 200 mass rallies, with up to tens of thousands of participants. Their demands were for the resignation of the government, for constitutional reform, and an end to the repression of critical voices.
In August, the UFTD went public with demands for the realization of a “true constitutional monarchy”. They demanded that criticism of the royal house be allowed, that the king’s influence on politics be limited, and that the royal house’s budget, which is financed by taxes, be reduced. Given the high prestige of the king and the draconian penalties for insulting his majesty, these demands represented a historically unprecedented violation of taboos.
The demand for an open debate reached its peak in Autumn 2020, when a rally organized by the newly formed group Khana Ratsadorn 2563 focused its criticisms on the monarchy. While there had already been calls for the resignation of the prime minister and for constitutional reform, protesters now demanded a reform of the monarchy as a whole. In addition, as part of their protest march to the German Embassy in Bangkok, protesters called on the German government to investigate whether the Thai king was acting unlawfully when conducting state business from Germany. Ultimately, however, focusing on the monarchy led to disagreements within the heterogeneous protest movement.
A Broad Spectrum
In the summer of 2020, the student-led protests transformed into a large-scale movement for democracy, which at times received a lot of support — mainly from the middle class. The protests brought together a broad spectrum of groups. In addition to student groups such as the UFTD, the “Free Youth” and the inter-classist Khana Ratsadorn 2563, high school students from elite schools formed the Bad Student Group. The group’s original aim was to demonstrate for the abolition of school uniforms and outdated curricula. In the meantime, the students have adopted some of the demands from the democracy movement and are also fighting authoritarian structures that extend far beyond school life.
Other groups which joined the protest movement include the “Free Feminists” and the LGBTQ group Seri Toey Plus, which advocate for gender equality, as well as Talufah, a coalition of activists addressing the socio-economic disadvantages faced by the rural population, and the Labour Assembly of Thailand, whose main concerns are the strengthening of workers’ rights and the creation of a social security system. An association of mothers of people unjustly imprisoned, the Ratsa Mom, and the Ratsadorn Taliban, which caused a stir with a nude protest, as well as the protest group Car Mob also feature prominently in the protest landscape.
At the end of 2020, a change of course took place within the “Free Youth” network, towards giving the protest movement a more social orientation. The group Restart Democracy (later renamed REDEM) addressed class relations and equitable distribution of basic goods and services. They emphasised the importance of workers in Thai society and demanded a redistribution of wealth and resources along the lines of a socialist model, such as the nationalisation of enterprises. The latter demand, in particular, as well as the use of the hammer and sickle in its logo, led to widespread rejection of the group within the democracy movement.
In February 2021, REDEM partially toned down these demands. The group’s primary demand is now a strengthening of workers’ rights and the establishment of a comprehensive social security system. In addition, REDEM criticises the fact that oligarchs have control over the import of vaccines and that the AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured too slowly, by a company owned by the king. Nevertheless, the group has not been able to attract a large number of ordinary Thai citizens so far.
The government made no concessions to the demonstrators and increasingly used violence to break up the peaceful protests, resorting to water cannons, batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas . There were also a number of arbitrary arrests; more than a thousand people were prosecuted in connection with the protests.
The king has not yet commented directly on the protests. Through propaganda disseminated by state media, he tried to portray the royal family as being caring and in touch with the average citizen, and to counter criticism of the monarchy. There were also rallies where people affirmed their loyalty to the monarchy, and rejected demands for reform as being anti-monarchical attacks. On several occasions violent clashes between the pro-democracy and royalist protesters broke out. Numerous of the charges for lèse majesté were initiated by the royalist opposition.
It is worth noting that the lèse majesté law, which has not been enforced for years, is now being used again as a tool against the democracy movement. According to statistics from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, between November 2020 and June 2021, at least 154 people, including minors, are reported to have been charged with violating this law.
The New Protest Culture of the Young Generation
Looking at the youth movement as a whole and in comparison to previous protest movements, the following unique features can be identified. Firstly, the protests are carried by loosely organised groups, some of which coordinate together. These joint protests allow for a decentralized leadership structure, leave room for tactical creativity, and allow a wide range of issues to be addressed. Because of this, it is also difficult for the government to suppress them.
Secondly, social media plays a crucial role in mobilization. Social media is used to help publicize protest events and demands, gather ideas and inspiration for different types of political action, and to organize putting these plans into action. Demonstrations are broadcast live on Facebook, which increases coverage and allows people to interact with the movement. Recently, the platforms Clubhouse, Discord and TikTok have become important for the movement.
Thirdly, the young protesters make use of elements from international pop culture. The three-finger salute from the Hunger Games novels is particularly popular and has become a symbol of protest against the military government. People made a mockery of the government’s tax policy by comparing it to Hamtaro, the ever-hungry hamster featured in a well-known Japanese cartoon, and the royalist “yellows” were compared to Minions.
Fourthly, the democracy movement in Hong Kong has been an important influence on the protesters in Thailand, as is evident in the adoption of forms of protest such as flash mobs, spontaneous and decentralised gatherings, but also in the use of symbols such as umbrellas and rubber ducks in protests. Beyond this, a new transnational movement emerged under the name of the “Milk Tea Alliance”, with young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and even Myanmar networking to support each other in their protests against authoritarian governments and to fight together for freedom and democracy.
The Underprivileged Enter the Stage
The economic crisis resulting from measures put in place to contain the pandemic brought new actors onto the scene in August 2021. The residents of Bangkok’s Din Daeng district were among the most severely affected. Initially, young people from Din Daeng took part in the student-led protests.
Soon, however, irreconcilable differences between the underprivileged from the slums and the students became evident: the students’ partly post-materialist demands and their discussions about forms of state and government or about gender equality were simply not relevant to the lived realities of impoverished urban youth. From the latter group’s demands, concepts such as the constitution, elections, or the monarchy were absent; rather, they demanded new, competent leadership, and concrete policies that would improve their economic situation. Poverty and experiences of state violence, mainly encountered in the form of the corrupt and violent traffic police, produced a fundamental antagonism that even the more radical sections of the students did not share.
The young people of Din Daeng also found the students’ exclusive codes and forms of expression difficult to access. After the police used extreme brutality against the Din Daeng youth, who often demonstrated on motorbikes, some of them became radicalized and formed the group Thalugaz (which means “breaking through [tear] gas”). They armed themselves with home-made bombs and responded to police violence with counter-violence. As a result, the student protesters, whose self-image is based on creative and non-violent forms of protest, distanced themselves from the group.
The Youth Protests Die Down
Since the end of 2020, the youth movement has been losing momentum. The regular street demonstrations no longer attract tens of thousands of participants, but only hundreds. This decline in numbers cannot only be explained by the fear of the coronavirus. State repression is also a factor: the police’s readiness to use violence, the numerous arrests, and the risk of escalation during the demonstrations make the personal risk seem too great for many citizens.
The contradictions within the movement are also a major factor. The movement has yet to find a unifying common ground. Instead, maximal demands are articulated that even the youth movement is incapable of reaching consensus on. While some parts of the movement focus on the abolition or at least reform of the monarchy, other parts completely reject a discussion about the monarchy and demand a return to democracy in an unchanged constitutional monarchy. Still others are primarily concerned with solving their economic plight.
Another reason why the youth protest movement has not managed to win over broader sections of the population to its cause is that the youth use exclusive language and messaging. Codes, symbols, and forms of protest borrowed from international pop culture have proven to be very effective in mobilizing and creating forms of identification within their own group, but such antics are inaccessible most ordinary Thai citizens.
It is difficult for many Thai people to relate to the demands that have been articulated thus far. Although there have been some attempts to address social issues, the interests of the largest section of the population in Thailand, the rural underclass, have hardly been taken into account. The lived reality for their compatriots outside of the big cities seems simply to be foreign to the young demonstrators. The elite urban students’ demands for the abolition of school uniforms and changes to the curriculum have nothing to do with the needs of village school children, whose lives would be fundamentally improved by free school materials and school lunches.
A Big Challenge
Although the youth protests have now lost momentum, they have had a lasting impact on the political discourse. By breaking the taboo of demanding reforms to the monarchy, they have expanded the sphere of what can be said. Numerous parties have now adopted this demand and are preparing themselves for the election campaign, which is expected to take place in spring 2022.
It is unlikely, however, that the youth protests will pick up speed again any time soon. In view of the spreading disillusionment and the fear of falling victim to state repression, for many, the better option seems to be to wait for the anticipated elections.
In order to generate a renewed sense of momentum within the protests, unifying demands, appealing to people of different generations, classes and realities, would be required. This is certainly a significant challenge, faced not only by opposition groups in Thailand. It is said that one grows with the tasks — at least that is what one wishes for the Thai youth.