Hope Over Fear: The 2020 Student-led Protests in Thailand

Similar goals link the current protests in Thailand with earlier ones. Their different tactics make them harder for authorities to quell.

Police separate pro-democracy protesters from royalist supporters as the royal motorcade passes in Bangkok on 14 October 2020. (Photo: Mladen Antonov, AFP)

Punchada Sirivunnabood

29 October 2020

In February 2020, Thai students began organising flash mobs to protest against the Constitutional Court’s decision dissolving the Future Forward Party (FFP). These anti-government demonstrations, coordinated by the Student Union of Thailand and its allies, expanded across university campuses. They only halted when the country went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic at the end of March. After pandemic control restrictions eased in June, a new round of protests began.

A series of flash mob protests started on 18 July, and tensions began escalating after a major rally on 19 September. A coalition of youth groups, known collectively as the new People’s Party, is driving the rallies. The situation became still more serious when demonstrators were accused of obstructing a royal motorcade late on the afternoon of 14 October. Since then, protests have become an almost daily occurrence.  

The current extended round of anti-government protests in Thailand exhibits similarities and differences to past Thai protest movements. Most of the protesters’ demands resemble those of previous generations of pro-democracy demonstrators, including a legitimately elected government and a more democratic and inclusive constitution. While the call for the reform of monarchy is new and a focus of the media coverage, the most striking innovation is the tactics used. 

This round of protests across the country has shown many changes from the demonstrations seen in the 15 years since 2005. These include the presence of large numbers of high school and college students; the power of social media; and the absence of clear leadership.

Somewhat similar to the student-led protests of 1973, we are once again witnessing the emergence of high school and college students as the main body of protesters. Student organisations such as the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration group, the Free Youth movement and the Bad Student movement have emerged as the main organisational force behind the gatherings.

In this new round of rallies, social media has played a critical role in connecting protesters. The rise of Twitter as a platform for mobilising protests reflects the significant and growing interest in this platform among Thai teenagers in the past few years. Participants in student-led protests saw Twitter playing an important role in expanding their political knowledge and helping them to step out of the shadows of their conservative ‘royalist’ parents. Twitter also offers a new platform for communication among protesters, especially allowing protest organisers to announce changes in protest venues and times on short notice.

The government tried to take down mainstream social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The young protesters switched to alternative communication platforms like Telegram and Bridgefy, that have become commonly used communication tools among protesters in authoritarian contexts such as in Iran and more recently Hong Kong.

If the government’s actions are seen as merely a tactic to buy more time rather than seriously to consider protesters’ demands, we may see a further escalation of the movement.

Aside from the use of social media as a major communications platform, the absence of a core protest leadership group has revealed a capacity for collective action among the new generation as they fight against the government. Protests in Thailand traditionally feature a series of speeches by leaders on a stage, with individual protesters participating primarily as the audience. But this round of protests has not featured major protest speakers. Instead, microphones are passed through groups in the audience, allowing protesters to voice their own experiences and complaints.

Tensions in Thailand seem to be rising again, after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha refused to step down. His cabinet backed a proposal from lawmakers to convene a special session of parliament to discuss the ongoing protests on 26-27 October, apparently with a view to resolving this conflict. The government, however, only tabled three issues to discuss during this session, including lifting the state of emergency still in place in Bangkok, the alleged obstruction of a royal motorcade by protesters, and the impact of the demonstrations on the business areas. These issues, however, do not reflect the demands of the protesters.

How can Thailand’s latest round of political conflict end if the government ignores the demands of the groups of the young generation? If the government’s actions are seen as merely a tactic to buy more time rather than seriously to consider protesters’ demands, we may see a further escalation of the movement.

It is time for the Thai political elite to decide whether they wish to return to the familiar pattern of political struggle that we have seen over the past 15 years or to move forward toward real democracy. The young generation already has chosen hope over fear. It is time for the Thai elite to decide.

Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mahidol University, Thailand.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/170

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