BANGKOK, Thailand—Tensions have been running high in Thailand since Saturday, July 18, when thousands of anti-government protesters massed at the capital’s iconic Democracy Monument. The structure was raised to commemorate the Siamese Revolution in 1932 but has since become a symbol of freedom for generations of Thai activists.
The bloodless uprising from nearly a century ago helped bring down a system of absolute monarchy in the country and usher in an era of increased democracy. Now, a new pro-democracy movement is taking inspiration from previous generations of activists while adding in bolder tactics, larger-scale demonstrations, and three core demands that observers say have made this effort one of the most important in the nation’s recent history.
Over the past few weeks, Thailand’s new youth-led protest movement has been gaining momentum. Opposition began brewing in March over dissatisfaction with the military-backed government, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a momentary pause on any activity. Once Thailand began easing restrictions in response to a drop in its number of coronavirus cases, the movement resurfaced in full-force.
Anger mounted after the disappearance of a prominent Thai activist named Wanchalerm Satsakit, who was plucked from a protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June. More than two months later, his whereabouts are still unknown. Protesters view the Thai government’s inaction in investigating Wanchalerm’s disappearance as reflective of a continued clampdown against dissidents and a disregard for human rights.
Since mid-July, thousands of young Thais have taken to the streets calling for three major structural changes: the dissolution of parliament, the end to the intimidation of government critics, and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution, which was most recently revised in 2017 and helped consolidate power to the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
To many young supporters, this new protest movement is more important than ever. A new generation of activists are pushing back against the nation’s de-facto military rule, which has been in power since a 2014 coup and has failed in its promises to restore democracy.
Young activists have witnessed a steady rise of authoritarianism across the region and see this moment as an opportunity to save Thailand from an indefinite military regime—one that they say routinely violates their civil liberties and human rights.
Recent arrests of key pro-democracy players have further inflamed tensions
In recent weeks, Thai police have carried out sweeping arrests of key pro-democracy players throughout the capital in a move to suppress dissent.
On Friday, August 7, police arrested prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and activist Panupong Jadnok. The two activists have been charged with sedition, a charge that can carry up to seven years in prison.
Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, the leader of the Free People movement spearheading protests, told VICE News on August 7 that recent arrests have been unwarranted.
“I am incredibly angry because all of our demonstrations have been peaceful,” Tattep said. “Protesting is a fundamental right in the constitution, and in a true democracy, these principles should be upheld without risk.”
Tattep said that the re-energized youth-led protest movement comes in response to years of government intimidation.
“For quite some time now, we’ve seen that whenever anyone speaks out against the government, they can be harassed. This has to change,” he added.
VICE News observed a closed-door meeting of members of the Free People movement in late July as they mapped out their next move. Team members took turns voicing their fears, with some foreshadowing that the state would use arrest as an intimidation tactic.
Some members of the movement even expressed concerns that the military could use deadly force, as the strategy has been used to combat pro-democracy protests in the past—specifically, during the 1976 Thammasat Massacre, the deadly 1992 Black May protests and in 2010, where a series of protests ended in a brutal military crackdown that left an estimated 91 people dead.
Young Thais also fear an impending economic recession
Recent protests have also highlighted a growing sense of despair among young Thai citizens, who have watched as the nation’s once-thriving economy has begun to dry up.
In May, Thailand’s economy slipped into a recession after observing its worst quarter in eight years. As the pandemic has stalled the country’s usually-prosperous tourism industry, the nation’s GDP has been forecast to contract 8.1% this year.
A new report published by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group on August 4 predicts that an economic crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic may be looming in Thailand.
“The sharpest economic shock since the 1997-1998 financial crisis will strain a society simmering with discontent,” the report states.
“The crisis is likely to accelerate Thailand’s extreme concentration of power and wealth and deepen political divisions, which could trigger a social, economic and political reckoning.”
The role of social media
The newest protests are being led by a younger, more digitally-savvy group of protesters that have helped to proliferate messages.
“In this day and age we have the internet, so we use this to our advantage,” Bunkueanun Paothong, a 21-year-old protest leader from Mahidol University, told VICE News on Monday, August 3.
“We often see this in the form of particular hashtags, memes, or edgy jokes floating around,” Bunkueanun said.
He added that recent demonstrations have used internet culture in order to bolster enthusiasm—in an event last month, hundreds of young men and women mocked the government in an event that took inspiration from the Japanese cartoon “Hamtaro.” At another more audacious demonstration, organizers openly criticized the monarchy while dressed as the fictional wizard Harry Potter.
In previous years, criticism as such would have been unfathomable due to the country’s strict “lese-majeste” laws—criticizing the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
But this new generation seems more confident in its resistance despite the risks.
“This country will not be saved by students alone, Bunkueanun said. “There are a lot of people saying the students are saviors, but it’s not our fight alone, it's also your fight and everyone else's.”
Still, speaking out in Thailand can come at a price.
Student activist Parit Chiwarak told VICE News following a protest on August 8 that it is common for protesters to be monitored by police or harassed at their homes or schools.
Fellow student activist Sirin Mungcharoen told VICE News on Monday, August 10, that she has been followed by police since appearing at a protest.
“I have to be more careful now,” she said. “I can't live as I did before this.”
Parit said that recent police actions have only served to propel the movement forward. Thousands attended an anti-government protest on August 10—Parit said he expects even more at another scheduled rally on August 16th.
As the movement grows, experts fear a further crackdown
Despite the resilience of young activists, experts fear authorities may be orchestrating a largescale campaign to arrest protesters.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, a professor of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand, told VICE News on August 8 that things may escalate as protests continue.
According to The Bangkok Post, local media has reported that police may be looking to target up to 30 protesters for their connection to the rallies that have ballooned over the past month.
Tattep told VICE News that his name is on that police list.
“This is harassment against the Thai people from the state,” he said.
Tattep said he hopes the recent arrests will serve to embolden other Thai citizens.
“They’re violating our civil rights, our liberties, and our democratic principles,” he said.
“If we want democracy for Thailand, we need to continue to protest and apply more pressure. We need the whole nation to support us in order to release Thailand from authoritarianism.”