Pivotal moment in Thailand?

Student shows three-fingers sign to protest against government at Thammasat University, Rangsit Campus on 26 February 2020

Thousands of university and high school students holding demonstrations in campuses all over the country shows that the tide is turning in Thailand. Although big change has yet to come, the agents of change are getting ready.

The Future Forward Party was disbanded on 21 February. This came with the banning of 16 party executives from politics for 10 years. 11 of them were MPs. As predicted in an earlier analysis, 9 MPs of the now non-existent Future Forward Party defected to join the pro-government Bhumjaithai Party. The remaining MPs have 60 days to join a political party if they want to maintain their MP status. They have a substitute party prepared, but it will take time to recover.

The disbandment was timely for the establishment since it was scheduled right before the no-confidence motion against Prayut Chan-o-cha and 5 other ministers; the banned FFP leaders can no longer take part. It also helps the government with its thin majority. But even without the disbandment, the government can still overcome the no-confidence motion easily. Had he been voted out of the government by the House of Representatives, Prayut could always have come back with help of the unelected Senate as they are required to join voting a Prime Minister during the first 5 years of this constitution.

The move considered by many as excessive has triggered a political backfire. In its 708-day existence since March 2018, Future Forward gained 6 million votes in the last election, and their young voters are angry. Thousands of university and high school students held demonstrations in campuses all over the country. No one has ever seen student demonstrations on this scale since the 1990s when they joined the crowds that overthrew a military government led by Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon.

Student protest at Thammasat Rangsit Campus on 26 February 2020

Rather than focusing on the Future Forward Party, the messages in vinyls and hashtags are more about who they are and what's going on with the whole political system in general. They are angry about the junta staying in power for too long and how the future is being taken from them as Thai economy suffers from stagnation and inequality. And as the security papers acknowledged for years, the bonds between the monarchy and younger generation are weakened, something also reflected in the protest. "How is the weather in Germany?, " reads one sign in a protest at Srinakharinwirot University.

The dissolution of Future Forward has opened a Pandora’s box. A Future Forward staff member who preferred not to mention his name said in a conversation that the disbandment means they no longer have to hold back. As a political party, they were bound by rules and norms. Sometimes they refrained from certain actions for sake of future reciprocity. Not anymore. Its Facebook profile picture now show the Future Forward logo with the word 'Party' crossed out. The former party leaders, MPs, and their supporters have shifted their emphasis from being a political party to a social movement, operating both inside and outside parliament.

This sort of liberation can be seen in the context of no-confidence motion. Outside parliament, Pannika Wanich, the former speaker of the Future Forward Party, released information about the government's involvement in the 1MDB scandal. Benja Saengjan exposed a phone recording of a government MP trying to buy the defection of Future Forward MPs at 23 million baht per seat. Now she has been threatened and has asked for police protection. Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn has exposed how the Prime Minister, through the Internal Security Operation Command, has ordered IOs, or information operations, to sabotage activists and the peace process in the Deep South.

Benja Saengjan asked for police protection after exposing a phone recording of a government MP trying to buy the defection of Future Forward MPs at 23 million baht per seat.

The IOs are now the talk of the town. The operators are hired to post false accusations, but they are not paid equally as corrupt officials collect money along the way. Some of them earn 300 baht per month, but some only 100 baht. In parliament, Wiroj posted a link to a groupchat of an IO group for concerned citizens to pay a real-time visit. They joined the group to flood stickers as the authorities deleted it as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, government supporters are tasting their own medicine. Oftentimes in social media they accused opposition supporters of getting paid to join a protest; now they are asked how much they are paid to say such things, 100 or 300?

Even though it is fun to watch the establishment in an awkward position, models for change are not adequately entertained. Jirayu Houngsub, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Pheu Thai Party, called for a referendum to see if the Thai people still want Prayut as a Prime Minister of Thailand. Anudith Nakornthap, also from Pheu Thai, along with his fellows, turned on cellphone flashlights in parliament to call for an election. These are far from practical actions. The establishment knows only too well that even with cheek and support from the unelected bodies to win another election, they no longer have a mandate to rule. Injustice will only galvanize more people to side with the opposition.

Meanwhile the students at Silpakorn University have called for the government to establish a committee to draft a new constitution. But with the current parliament, a possibility of getting it approved is very unlikely. Unless a double-dip coup is staged by Gen Apirat Kongsompong, substantive change will likely occur only after the government’s term expires in 2022 and the establishment no longer has the protection of the first 5 years of the constitution.

However, it does not mean what is being done right now is meaningless.  When the People's Power Party was dissolved, the Red Shirt protesters flooded Bangkok streets demanding justice for months and 92 of them were killed during a crackdown in 2010. This time is a bit different. Saddened by the tragic event and aware of how brutal the Thai authorities can be, the students have adapted by holding flashmobs in universities where they are outside the scope of the public assembly law which requires prior permission from the police. Holding low-key flashmobs also means they can gain confidence bit by bit. They know big change has yet to come, and they are preparing so that when the time comes, they are powerful enough to bring about substantive change in Thailand.