Janjira Sombatpoonsiri: violent and non-violent protests explained

The binary thinking that places violent and nonviolent protests at opposite ends of a spectrum limits the possibilities of protest, according to a Chulalongkorn University political scientist, many movements have used both approaches simultaneously, although they may bear different political costs. While comparing red shirt and student protests, she suggested future protesters use a broad-based approach to attract broader support in bringing change.

As the media often fails to provide enough context and analysis of protests, people often perceive them as violent. Dr Janjira Sombatpoonsiri of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies and the author of “Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia” explains how word choices affect the audience’s perception and clarifies why nonviolent protests sometimes morph into vandalism. 

Following the 2010 protests, dozens were killed and injured. This led to a great deal of propaganda and discourse causing fear among Thai dissidents. The function of protest is to allow direct engagement of the people especially the underprivileged, the voiceless and the marginalized. Dr Janjira, therefore, debunked myths while outlining how students could conduct a more constructive movement.

Different terms, different connotations

“Protests can be both an expression of emotion and a vehicle for change,” Dr Janjira said.

She said the word “protest” is a generic term that conveys subversion, dissent and disobedience, which implies dissatisfaction with the status quo or change to that status quo. Take as an example the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against white supremacy that gained worldwide engagement.

Meanwhile, “unrest" implies chaos and disruption of the existing status quo. “Social unrest” reflects a rather negative understanding of protests mostly espoused by some onlookers, journalists or power holders such as the government,” like the large protests in Hong Kong beginning in June 2020 that partially involved violence.

“Civil unrest” is similar to “social unrest” but highlights actors as citizens.

Although the term “unrest” is often portrayed as involving violent incidents, this is not necessarily the case, says Dr Janjira. Most of the time, citizens organize protests to express their grievances in a nonviolent way even though their activism is subversive.

Violence and nonviolence in protests

Dr Janjira categorised violence into two types — visible and invisible violence.

Visible violence is direct or physical violence, which includes looting, arson and breaking windows. Invisible violence consists of structural violence and cultural violence.

Structural violence may not be bloody but economic inequality or racist laws, for instance, can undercut live chances. It can limit a person’s access to good education, therefore curtailing their chances at employment and leaving their cycle of poverty. Structural violence is, in other words, results from socio-economic injustices.

Cultural violence refers to culturally-based justifications of direct or structural violence via cultural forms such as language use, aspects of religion or tradition, assumptions, and stereotypes. An example of such violence seen recently is when a woman is at fault for being raped as parts of the society dominated by patriarchal culture judged her for inappropriate clothing, she stayed out late at night or she ‘asked’ for it.

According to Dr Janjira,  sometimes protesters think that the use of vandalism helps them fight against structural violence. But in fact, these tactical choices also determine how the public perceive protesters. Violent vandalism can be counterproductive as protests need public support and damaging public property or hurting the police can provoke public disagreement with protesters.

In this sense, Dr Janjira argues that nonviolence can be a more effective method of struggle as it might be easier for protesters to earn public support if they are faced with violence from the state.

“Nonviolent protests” are sometimes used interchangeably with civil resistance which denotes a series of actions planned to convey popular grievances, disrupt power relations in society, and eventually alter them in terms of discursive/cultural, policy and governmental changes.

Dr Janjira elaborated theoretical arguments within the studies of violence and nonviolence. On the one hand, a scholar argues that nonviolence tends to be both means and a goal.

While movements use nonviolence for social change, that change as the goal is also inherently nonviolent (e.g. democracy, just society), violence, however, serves as a mere instrument as no movements have ever claimed that they want to achieve a more violent world. Therefore, the reasons for using violence need to be provided. Meanwhile, the power of nonviolence lies it the fact that it needs no justification.

Strategically speaking, scholars contend that nonviolence can be more effective because of its ability to increase the incredibility of movements in the eyes of the public and create shifts from the allies of the opponent’s side.

On the other hand, political historians see violence as sometimes necessary to instigate systemic changes. Wars, for instance, were an important stepping stone for statebuilding and economic modernisation. Violent revolution, as happened in 1917 Russia, is deemed a critical juncture for the transformation from agrarian and feudal to modern and republican Russia.

Dr Janjira reminds that both violence and nonviolence yield advantages and disadvantages. Movements would need to make a strategic decision.

“The movement, if wants to be successful, depends on strategic decision making. The better strategies you have, the more people join the movement, the more political leverage. Most likely this is an outcome of an effective nonviolent strategy.”

Reflections on Thai protest history

Dr Janjira compared the red shirts and student protests in terms of tactical choice related to public perception. 

The language used in the media created among the publica negative perception towards the red shirts protesters. The terms “the unwashed,” “downtrodden” and “barbarians at the gate” were used. She explained that these terms marginalized and alienated the protesters while labelling them as invaders, which led to misconceptions that they would become violent.

The CU protest expert, however, draws on a research paper done by the Strategic Nonviolence Committee under the Thai Research Fund, and argues that 60 percent of Red Shirts’ protest repertoires were featured by nonviolent rallies, symbolic demonstrations (e.g. blood pouring) and non-cooperation. Nevertheless, these attempts were eventually overshadowed by the overuse of disruptive actions and vandalism in response to military suppression. Occupying buildings, main roads and business intersections made up for 10 percent of total protest actions.

“The image of barbarians invading Bangkok and the presumptions that they would become violent were so embedded in Thai people. The incident such as the burning of Central World was interpreted as a violent incident when we did not know who the culprit was,” she added.

The photos and narrative reproducing the discourse “burning down the homeland” misled the public perception on violence in the 2010 protest. The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand reported that “around 20 protesters who were equipped with slingshots, molotov cocktails, and homemade explosives started the fire and threw in about 10 gas tanks resulting in explosion-like sounds.”

It was also reported that before the Central World fire, fires broke out at least in 7 places after the evening of 18 May 2010, and at least 30 places after the protest leaders declared the protest. (BBC Thai)

Although the red shirt movement has given the public the legacy of “ta sawang” seeing the truth as Dr Janjira believes, the protest that left more than 90 dead and thousands injured, mostly caused by the military crackdown, serves as a discourse of “dying in vain, nothing changes” to prevent people from protesting.

This discourse has become one of the controversial topics among student activists who rose to the stage in the unprecedented protests by thousands of students against the social injustice of the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in February 2020. The movement subsided during the Covid-19 outbreak but some have got together and designed a collective direction.

Twitter user @gundamkeyboard said “I am one person who does not agree with going onto the streets. There are so many disadvantages to the people. Use the parliament system to change the game. I really think this govt will give orders to shoot without giving it a thought.”

Another user @makamkaaa said, “If you think that dying is not in vain, then let me ask you if they have received justice yet. Do you really think that going onto the streets at this time is something we should do? I can understand you're angry and want justice. But think a little, about who are going to be the leaders of the people? Even Thanatorn (ex-FFP leader) can do nothing at all.”

Dr Janjira expressed her concern that the debate among the student group is not going in a constructive direction as there is a lot of morality or claims about whose ideological stance is more superior.

Unlike the red shirts, the student movement does not have a violent image. Students also have social status despite their different backgrounds. They are viewed as innocent, untarnished, and, therefore, beneficial to a public image which Dr Janjira suggested using as an advantage in creating the movement.

Dr Janjira suggested using a broad-based approach to attract nationwide support as it can bring about change. “Communicate with people, especially common people and the grassroots. Find commonalities and democratic struggles that cut across various communities.

“Students should start thinking about how they want to construct the movement and find a consensus for what we want for our future,” Dr Janjira recommended.