Thailand: Ample Fuel for the Flash Mobs

Current flash mobs in Thailand are taking a leaf from student movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Their similarity to student protests in Hong Kong has sparked concern

Thai authorities fret that the 2019 student protests in Hong Kong (picture on the left) could inspire their counterparts in Thailand (right). (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, Lillian Suwanrumpha, AFP)

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

13 March 2020

A youthquake is confronting Thailand’s government. Since the latter part of February, thousands of university and high school students across the country have since staged protests to demand more democratic politics.

The students have gathered in their campuses to express their anger and frustration since the Constitutional Court’s 21 February decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party. They accuse the Thai authorities of being undemocratic and have called the verdict unfair. Some of these young protestors are first-time voters who had supported the FFP, the favoured party of their generation, in the March 2019 elections. Others simply want to see a change in Thailand’s politics. They want to see an end to the Thai military’s rule by proxy, an  amendment to the 2017 constitution drafted under the auspices of the former National Council for Peace and Order junta and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha .

These protests are known as “flash mobs.” They appear from out of the blue, demonstrate briefly and dissipate as fast as they have assembled. The expression was coined in 2003, but it became famous in Thailand after the 2014 coup, when demonstrators played cat-and-mouse with a military regime that prohibited political assembly. The concept also characterises new political movements in Thailand more generally, distinguishing them from the mass protests of previous decades. The street protests of the Yellow Shirts in the 2005-2008 period, and the demonstrators blowing whistles against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013-2014 were associated with the alliance of the establishment and the military. The bloody  Red Shirt protests of 2009-2010 was linked to the opposition Phuea Thai Party.

In contrast, the assemblies of students in recent weeks are similar to the social movements of their grandparents’ generation in the 1960s. They were initiated by young people who desired a society which moved toward democracy, justice and national well-being. Initially, they were not well organized, and could have subscribed to various schools of thought. The Thai student movements which succeeded them in the 1970s and 1980s were better organised. Student unions in universities and umbrella organizations, such as the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT, 1968-1976) and the Student Federation of Thailand (SFT, 1984-early 2000) were active and made an impact. The NSCT was at the vanguard of the 1973 popular uprising which spelt the death knell of the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. The SFT actively participated in the 1992 Bloody May popular protest against the military-led government of General Suchina Kraprayoon.

… the assemblies of students in recent weeks are similar to the social movements of their grandparents’ generation in the 1960s. They were initiated by young people who desired a society which moved toward democracy, justice and national well-being.

In the past two decades, individuals and small groups of students have participated in Thai political and social movements, but did not play a significant role. In that sense, the student flash mobs of today can, however, be seen as the natural successors of their forebears of the 1970s and 1980s. They can be regarded as a rejuvenation of activism calling for change. The current student organisations are neither active nor strong, but the students have leveraged on social media to organise themselves and propagate their messages of protest to the public. They flit between the virtual and real-life worlds, supplementing their street marches with hashtags and viral posts. All these are aimed at the government.

In essence, the flash mobs in Thailand take a leaf from their counterparts in Hong Kong, where young people operating in small groups have organized themselves to participate in street demonstrations. The student movement in the former British colony has demonstrated an uncanny ability to inspire other parts of civil society to join their protests, anywhere and anytime.

No wonder, the demonstrations in Hong Kong – which first erupted last year – have spooked the Thai authorities. Speaking in October 2019, Army chief Apirat Kongsompong fretted that the Hong Kong protests might inspire their Thai counterparts. Apparently, activist Joshua Wong was acquainted with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the now dissolved Future Forward Party. Wong was blacklisted in Thailand years ago, but has since been in contact Thai student dissident Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal of Chulalongkorn University.

The student protests present a pretty pickle for the Thai government, which is already under pressure. Thailand is reeling from an economic downturn and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has in turn affected the lucrative tourism industry. Unsurprisingly, many government supporters have expressed their disappointment with the government’s performance and have even suggested that they were turning their backs on it. This would only add fuel to the student flash mobs.

The government has reacted to the student flash mobs with caution, so as not to fuel popular anger. But Prime Minister Prayut has warned the students of legal consequences if they spill out of their campuses and into the streets. The Thai National Security Council is closely monitoring the students’ activities. At the same time, the House of Representatives has mulled over whether to invite student representatives to join the discussions of an ad hoc committee for charter amendment.

In the end, such half-hearted measures might prove to be redundant, if the government fails to address the groundswell of desire for reform and movement toward genuine democracy in Thailand.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the former editor of The Nation (Bangkok).

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/29

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