News

Thailand Sees Largest Anti-Government Protests Since 2014 Military Coup

The youth-led protests appear to have taken a page from Hong Kong's highly decentralized pro-democracy movement last year, one expert said.
July 20, 2020, 4:25pm
thailand protest afp
Protesters hold a sign that reads, "The longer you stay, the more devastation to the country, please resign" as they take part in an anti-government demonstration in Bangkok on July 18, 2020. Aidan JONES / AFP

Though pandemic lockdowns prematurely quashed a burgeoning anti-government movement in March, recent days have seen some of Thailand’s largest anti-government protests since its 2014 military coup.

According to Reuters, around 2,500 mostly young Thai protesters gathered at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Saturday to demand sweeping changes: the dissolution of parliament, an end to official harassment of government critics, and a rewriting of the nation’s constitution, which was most recently revised under the provisional military government in 2017. Smaller groups of protesters gathered at a military base and the prime minister’s office on Monday evening, the AP reports.

“No one hates the nation here,” one protest leader said on Saturday, leading a crowd-wide rendition of the national anthem, the Bangkok Post reported.

The protests went off in defiance of pandemic-related rules banning large gatherings, and police blared a recording of the text of the emergency law during the rally, but did not attempt to stop the demonstration, the AP reported.

“Every revolution and every change requires someone who'll take the risk. We are standing up today to take that risk, so that our friends and fellow people can stand with us together,” Watcharakorn Chaikaew, founder of Thaprachan Awaken and first vice president of the Student Union of Thailand, told VICE News.

Chaikaew said that many Thais have witnessed what they view as abuses of power by authorities, injustice, and corruption, and are saying “we will tolerate no more with this system.”

With dissatisfaction with the government growing among young people, the protest was student-led, with speakers hailing from youth groups including Student Union of Thailand, Free Youth and Youth for Democracy. The group Liberation Youth organized Saturday’s protest.

Protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army chief who ousted the elected government six years ago. He retook the prime ministership in a 2019 election, although the vote was widely seen as being deeply flawed. Under his rule, the military and royalist elites have further consolidated power, deepening the chasm between the establishment and progressives.

Among the signs held up by protesters on Saturday were veiled references to the Thai monarchy, which, thanks to the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws and traditional reverence for the king, would have once been unthinkable, Reuters reported. One person held up a sign that read “Lost faith is definitely not a crime!!!,” an apparent reference to an incident last week in which a man was sent to a psychiatric ward after wearing a T-shirt that read “I have lost faith in the monarchy.”

Chaikaew told VICE News that protesters want to see the government react to their demands within two weeks.

“If their action did not meet our demand we will elevate, consider hosting a bigger movement, bigger protest. At the same time our [peers] in parts of the region are hosting movements in their homes as well,” Chaikaew said.

Similar, but smaller peaceful actions took place in Chiang Mai and Ubon the day after the Bangkok protest. Free Youth also helped organize those rallies.

Viengrat Nethipo, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told VICE News that some of her friends—all of whom have participated in pro-democracy protests over the last 10 years—were surprised at the new faces in the crowd this weekend.

In the past, Nethipo said, it was the same academics and activists who attended similar protests, but this weekend, young, new faces dominated. The young groups have also adopted a new style of organizing.

“There's been some learning from the Hong Kong protests, where these groups represent free individuals that come together rather than being anchored down by particular organisations or political parties,” Aim Sinpeng, a political scientist at the University of Sydney, told VICE News.

Meanwhile, issues affecting the young appear to be a driving force behind the latest protests. One trigger for the pre-pandemic anti-government action was a February court ruling that dissolved the country’s second-largest opposition party, Future Forward, which enjoyed support from younger, more progressive Thais.

The June 22 abduction of a Thai political activist in nearby Phnom Penh, as well as the disappearance of other dissenters appears to have also increased tensions.

How the government will choose to respond, meanwhile, remains unclear.

“The government is keeping an eye on this and will hear the movement's needs. But to respond to the needs is another question,” Attasit Pankaew, a politics professor at Thammasat University, told VICE News.

He said that because the movement was initiated by the youth, the issues raised must resonate more broadly with the public before the government takes them seriously.

John Draper, director of the Social Survey Center at Khon Kaen University, told VICE News that he didn’t believe the protesters’ concerns were being heard by the government, with the two groups being “polar opposites in terms of norms, values, and ideologies.”

“Fundamentally, the government is in a pressure cooker of its own making, and the protesters know this. The government has created an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state, fueled by ultra-nationalist perspectives,” Draper said, adding that some protesters are concerned that already-strict security laws will be further strengthened to eliminate the possibility of protest in the future.

Sinpeng, the political scientist, said that young Thais had lost faith that the political elite are genuine about returning Thailand to democracy, and want to press the issue.

“They want to know that the elders who are running the country hear them and take their concerns seriously. They want respect.”