Student Protests in Thailand: The End of Political Quiescence

Recent mass students protests in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand have forced the hand of the government. If the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha does resign, it could signal a victory for the protesters – or a determination on the part of hard-line elements in the military and the palace.

A Buddhist monk gives the three-finger salute with pro-democracy protesters during an anti-government rally at Asok in Bangkok on 18 October 2020. (Photo: Mladen Antonov, AFP)
Michael Montesano

Michael J. Montesano

19 October 2020

Friday night brought disturbing scenes of state violence to central Bangkok, as Thai authorities turned water cannon on youthful protesters gathered at Pathumwan intersection to call for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s resignation. These scenes have left no room for doubt about the collapse of the political project of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta that seized power in a coup d’état in May 2014. The goal of that project was the imposition of lasting political quiescence on the country. To that end, in 2017 the junta promulgated a constitution intended to perpetuate military domination of Thai politics. Following elections held under the terms of that charter in March 2019, junta leader Prayut retained the premiership.

The Prayut government and the Thai political order are now in crisis. Nothing illustrates the government’s panic in the face of events that are the distinct opposite of political quiescence so starkly as its decision to shut down Bangkok’s mass transit system on Saturday afternoon. The government risked paralysing the busy capital in an attempt to prevent crowds from gathering, in violation of the state of “serious emergency” decree two days earlier, for another evening of demonstrations.

This attempt proved to be in vain. A total of more than 20,000 people gathered at the Lat Phrao intersection near the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the Udom Suk-Bang Na area in Bangkok’s southeast, and near Wongwian Yai on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. The crowds were again strikingly young, including many secondary school students. In addition to their determination to force Prayut from the premiership, outrage over the violence of the night before motivated the demonstrators.

In summoning people to those three sites in Bangkok, the United Front for Thammasat and Demonstration also announced plans for simultaneous protests in sixteen locations in provincial Thailand. If this announcement bespoke confidence in the nationwide reach of the movement coordinating opposition to the Prayut government, the protests that ensued across the country demonstrated that this confidence was justified.

In the southern province of Trang, 200 people assembled in the rain to criticise the prime minister and to condemn the violence of the previous evening, before singing the national anthem while making the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute emblematic of the ongoing protest movement.

On the campus of Suranaree University of Technology in Khorat, the gateway to the Northeast, demonstrators numbered more than a thousand. Similarly undeterred by rain, they included members of the Red Shirt movement that arose after the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. As in Trang, they decried the use of state violence at the Pathumwan intersection, which looked more and more like a blunder.

Similar scenes unfolded in Northern Thailand. More than 500 people gathered in Nakhon Sawan to call for the dissolution of parliament, an end to official intimidation and the drafting of a constitution to replace the 2017 charter. In Phrae, authorities called police reinforcements from the provincial hall to a student demonstration in front of the province’s flagship secondary school. Some 1,000 students assembled in Uttaradit to criticise the use of violence against demonstrators in Bangkok the night before, while also displaying the three-finger salute.

The ongoing protests underscore the fact that the Prayut government and the Thai political order are now in crisis.

The government has announced plans to hold elections for provincial administrative organisations in December. The Progressive Movement, the successor to the dissolved Future Forward Party, has been notably energetic in preparing to contest these elections. But the eruption of protests across the Thai provinces now calls the government’s plans into question.

Along with its failed objective of political quiescence, another goal of the 2014 coup was a smooth transition from the reign of King Bhumibol to that of his son Vajiralongkorn. The former sovereign died four years ago this month. If much of the intervening period suggested that the coup had achieved this second goal, the events of the past two months have called the smoothness of the transition into question, too.

At this, Thailand’s fearless student protesters have added the reform of the monarchy and an alignment of its role and powers with the principles of constitutional democracy to their other demands – the ouster of Prayut, parliament’s dissolution and a new constitution. Recent days suggest that in the absence of royal reform, realisation of the other items on that agenda would be a hollow victory.

Wednesday afternoon saw a motorcade in which King Vajirlongkorn’s wife and son, Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn, rode in a cream-coloured Rolls-Royce followed by nine matching red Mercedes-Benz automobiles routed along a road in front of Government House during an ongoing protest. By a government spokesman’s own admission, allegations that protesters obstructed the motorcade and insulted the monarchy led Prime Minister Prayut to declare a state of emergency early the next morning.

While perhaps intended to inflame the sentiments of Thais loyal to the monarchy against the ongoing anti-government protests, this rationale has had a second effect. It underlines the centrality of the monarchy in its current form to the order that those protests seek to transform.

Sunday afternoon and early evening saw further peaceful rallies against the Prayut government – at Victory Monument and the Asok intersection in Bangkok, in nearly 20 provincial locations and even in Los Angeles. Hours before those rallies began, the rumour that the prime minister would resign by the middle of the week to come spread across the capital. Would his resignation signal victory for the protesters? Or would it be the result of pressure from hard-line elements in the military and the palace, determined to install a prime minister more forcefully committed to the project of enforced political quiescence and unreformed royalism?

Prayut may even survive the weeks ahead, but, wherever those weeks lead Thailand, it is clear that visions of political quiescence have proved bankrupt.

Dr Michael Montesano is Coordinator, Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/164

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.