All you need to know about Thai protests

The protests proliferating across Thailand are becoming more creative than ever. The government is looking for ways to take them down. For better or worse, the outcome will be different from the past.

Here is all you need to know about the Thai student protests. We have taken interesting questions and answered them below. This report will be constantly updated. Since we believe in democracy, let us know via email if you want us to answer any other questions.

What are they doing?

 
Demanding a better future, the student-led movement has held more than 100 protests across the country in the last two months. Using popular culture references to make fun of Thai authoritarianism alongside other tactics, they have been quite creative in their endeavours. Apart from the famous Hamtaro protest, other examples are also worth mentioning:
 
  • On 21 July, a group of students held a protest. Inviting people to take a look at Democracy Monument’s new garden. They repeatedly chanted the message “the garden is really beautiful” and “dissolve parliament”. The satire aims to highlight the suspicion that the garden was planted because the government wants to make protests there more difficult as Democracy Monument was a regular landmark of protest due to its origin and political history. 
  • On 25 July, LGBT activists held a demonstration and chanted a dialogue adapted from the film Hor Taew Taek, a famous Thai comedy about LGBT people directed by Poj Arnon. By making fun of Prime Minister Prayut Chano-cha and his government, the activists want them to give everyone equal marriage rights by amending the Civil and Commercial Code instead of passing a separate Civil Partnership bill which will enable but still discriminate against LGBT marriages.
  • On 26 July, Sombat Boonngamanong, a political activist and the leader of the Grin party, treated antigovernment protesters to McDonald’s. Anyone who wanted free food had to say rude things about Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to get in. The hashtag “I am hungry I won’t tolerate it” has been tweeted along with “let them digest in our stomach.” The latter was in parallel with the hashtag “let it end with our generation” which showed up in earlier protests.  
  • On 30 July, the student protesters held a demonstration washing dishes with Gen Prayut Chano-cha’s face on them. They said he was difficult to wash away but all problems came from him. They wanted to wash away double standards in Thailand too. The protest was a response to a Phalang Pracharat MP’s post on Facebook: “everyone wants to help the country, but no one wants to help mom wash dishes.” To which a student replied with a sign: “If politics was good, my freaking mom would have had a dishwasher long ago.”
  • On 31 July, a group of students held an anti-government protest by displaying blank pieces of paper. When police asked to investigate the blank papers, they were made fun of by the Thai media. It looks like the Thai student protesters have borrowed the idea of blank sheets from Hong Kong protests which are facing a hard struggle against the new security law.
  • On 3 August, a group of Thai citizens openly called for monarchy reform in a Harry Potter themed protest. The group’s statement called for abolition or amendment of laws which help expand the monarchy’s power and limit freedom of criticism against the monarchy. 

Apart from holding creative protests, the student-led movement also used more traditional methods including speeches, three-finger signs, hunger strikes, public gatherings, etc. Last Sunday (16 August), they held the largest demonstration in 6 years on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. A conservative estimate shows that more than 10,000 protesters joined.

Activism has also taken place in places other than streets. In schools, students showed three-finger signs during the national anthem despite physical threats and disciplinary punishment from teachers. In universities, students said that they will not join graduation ceremonies where they have to receive certificates from members of the royal family. Unconfirmed reports also said that in movie theatres, people did not stand up to pay respect to the King before a movie began. 

The current student protests are the second wave this year. The first wave started in February, in response to the dissolution of the Future Forward party. Its momentum was stalled for a while because of the Covid-19 outbreak and the government’s Emergency Decree. But they started gathering again after it was exposed that Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a political activist in exile, was abducted in Cambodia. This time the student-led protests were far more powerful as more issues have been added to people’s grievances in the last five months.

Why are they protesting?

There are many short-term issues which have given rise to the on-going protests:
 
  • In March, a judge shot himself to death after his supervisors in the judiciary attempted to influence his verdicts in favour of military officers in the Deep South, the area torn by a century-long conflict. Months later, Pattani students held a protest under the slogan “where there is democracy, there will be peace.”
  • In March, a man was revealed to be exporting millions of masks to China despite government restrictions to mitigate domestic scarcity. He boasted on social media that he had the support of a Thai minister’s close aide. Thammanat Prompao, the minister in question, had earlier been exposed as a former drug criminal and denied any involvement. 
  • In May, one million enrolled for unemployment compensation, but money transfers were delayed because the surging number overwhelmed the system. The government has been incompetent in delivering relief as the economy declines due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • In June, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai political activist in exile, was kidnapped in Phnom Penh. The investigation has gone nowhere as the Thai government denies involvement in the disappearance.
  • In July, the cabinet approved the Civil Partnership bill, denying LGBT individuals the rights which heterosexuals enjoy under the Civil and Commercial Code. The cabinet’s decision prompted LGBT groups to join the anti-government protests.  
  • In July, an Egyptian soldier infected with Covid19 was found traveling around Rayong with VIP status while the government was telling the people not to “let their guard down.” Two protesters showed anti-government signs when Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha paid a visit to Rayong and were arrested. One of them later became a leader of the anti-government protests.
  • In July, Tiwagorn Withiton was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for wearing a shirt with the motto “I lost faith in the monarchy” A Twitter hashtag #saveTiwagorn topped trending in Thailand as people expressed their outrage at the treatment of the activist by the Thai authorities.
  • All charges against Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, the son of billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, were dropped despite evidence that he had killed a police officer by reckless driving. Memes spread in protests that if you pray to the god of Red Bulls, you will be immune from jail. 

Apart from these single-issue cases, grievances expanded to authoritarianism in schools, labour rights, abortion rights, monopolies in the alcohol industry, and more. People were fed up with corruption, double standards in the criminal justice system, and the lavish budgets for the military and the monarchy. At the heart of the problem is the constitution which enables unelected senators and supposedly independent but de facto partisan bodies to help the generals stay in power, cover up their misdeeds, and undermine their political opponents. 

What do they want?
 

The goals are clearer now than in the first wave. The student groups have repeated three demands: the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, and no more threats against citizens. Other groups have also brought their issues to the platform including LGBT rights, women’s rights, a welfare state, education reform, military reform, and improvements to the economy.

Politicians and academics are figuring out the steps required to meet the growing demand for constitutional amendment. Some pro-government MPs and unelected senators also joined the bandwagon. The main obstacles are still the pro-government MPs and the 250 unelected senators whose votes are required to pass any constitutional amendment. Most of them have remained silent or are opposed. 
 
But the most controversial of all has been reform of the monarchy. On 10 August, Anon Nampa outlined a 10-point proposal dealing with the monarchy's legal immunity, lèse majesté law, the Crown Property Bureau, royal lands, the system of donations to and by the royals, and royalist propaganda. Most political parties have remained silent on this while they figure out what to do. 
 

What they have achieved so far?

 
Under an oppressive regime, small victories are worth celebrating. Their first achievement is to have successfully pressured the government to withdraw the anti-protest clause from the current Emergency Decree. They criticized the government for exploiting the Covid-19 outbreak to prolong their power and suppress dissent. It is true that the government can still charge protesters on other grounds, but no longer can they accuse them as potential spreaders of the Covid-19.
 
Related to this is the achievement in convincing the public that it is okay to protest. Thais in general, conservative or progressive, have been suspicious of protests as a means of change. Conservatives often refer to the red-shirt protests in 2010 as an example of bad protests as they accuse the red shirts of burning homes and buildings. In the democratic opposition, some have said that protests only led to deaths and injuries as their memories of the military crackdown on the red shirts in 2010 are still vivid, while others blame protests for the success of the yellow shirts and the PDRC in bringing down elected governments in 2006 and 2014.
 
The Future Forward Party, which was dissolved by the Constitutional Court last year and reborn as the Move Forward Party, gained 6 million votes by playing on this anti-protest sentiment. The leadership ran the election campaign in 2019 arguing that protests take place because parliament fails. When the party was dissolved, they shifted position and affirmed that the right to peaceful assembly is a human right. Thanks to growing anti-government sentiment and the efforts of student activists, even the government must now admit that it is okay to protest.
 
Since they are a nonpartisan movement, they have been able to draw support from many more groups than before, including LGBT and women’s rights groups, the red shirts, labour unions, and even famous singers and actors. In the past, the Thai entertainment industry was widely criticized for its political apathy and pro-government attitudes. But this time many have denounced Gen Prayut’s government and joined the protesters.
 
On social media, it is also more usual to see former pro-government supporters make their apologies and change sides to be with protesters. Since the movement has become more diverse, so are their tactics and demands - as elaborated above. Because of their growing momentum, police operations against them are still minimal. Threats and prosecution seem to be directed at specific individuals rather than a large-scale violent crackdown.
 
They have also been successful in dismantling “the separation between activism in the online and offline spheres.” It shows that people’s outrage can be seen in qualitative terms rising from online to offline spheres. Online spheres like Twitter can be a place of outrage incubation instead of outrage de-escalation. This has led to something unprecedented. Never before has Thailand seen protests by high school students. Thanks to social media, the students learn about human rights and injustices at a faster rate.
 
However, the most notable achievement is that they have demanded monarchy reform in public for the first time in many years. This is something previous movements did not have courage or the appropriate opportunity to do. In the past decade, the political elite in the red shirt movement has been criticized for “fighting and prostrating”. Some of the red shirts in exile also tried to use social media platforms as an “underground radio” to criticize the monarchy during the reign of King Rama IX, but unfortunately their demands never reached the surface.
 

How has the government responded?

 
So far, the government’s responses have been two-faced. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and his cabinet members and MPs tried to spread a positive message saying that they will listen to the student demands. Parliament has established a committee to hear the students. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has paid visits to several alternative media outlets to listen to their recommendations.
 

At the same time, Gen Prayut tried to sabotage the movement by asking about their source of funding, political masterminds, and their negative impacts on the economy. Recently, protest leaders, including Anon Nampa, Panupong Jadnok, and Parit Chiwarak, have been arrested on sedition charges for going public about monarchy reform. Some Thai academics and opposition politicians are defending them saying that monarchy reform can be talked about under the current constitution while many media outlets have been trying to report it in an anti-protest fashion.

As of 13 August, according to iLaw, there have been at least 79 cases of threats and intimidation against students and citizens by the military, police and teachers. Most of the time the military and police would pay a visit to targets at their home. Teachers would call students to the administrative offices for interrogation and warnings. In some cases, teachers also coordinated with the police or the military while delivering threats to the students.  

Can the government launch a large-scale crackdown?

 
Evidence of an imminent large-scale crackdown remains scarce. Experts also think that it remains unlikely.
 
At the end of July, Matichon Online reported the leaking of two documents. One was an order for a Border Patrol Police unit to prepare facilities for accommodating a crowd control unit and detaining 100 protesters and their 5 leaders. The other was an order for the crowd control unit to prepare equipment and transportation routes so that they are available anytime. When Matichon Online asked the police, they said that the documents were genuine but it was a normal procedure.
 

Video footage of a recent pro-monarchy “student” protest revealed that the participants were actually quite old. One of them said that he had participated in the crackdown at the 6 October incident in 1976 and they would not rule out the use of violence. In their later protests they said that they would not use violence.

In the latest anti-government demonstration at the Democracy Monument, all the pro-monarchy protesters did was shout rude words at their opponents. Their leaders told the press that they would send volunteers to record lèse majesté speeches at the protest and report them to the police, but there was no sign of direct physical harm against the anti-government protesters.

The establishment warned that if the protests go on, the bloodshed of 6 October 1976 may repeat itself.  Politicians in the opposition camp, including Pita Limcharoenrut and Chaturon Chaisang, have countered this victim-blaming narrative. They said that if history was to repeat itself, it would not be because of the protesters but the oppressors themselves.

Meanwhile, experts think that a large-scale crackdown was unlikely.  Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian and intellectual activist in exile, made an observation on social media that unlike in the 6 October incident, the contemporary right-wing groups were not state-sponsored. In a recent article, Nidhi Eoseewong said that we should not rule out the possibility of violence, but it will take at least 6 months to prepare and gather resources if the government wants to stage a 6-October-like crackdown. And this time it will be live on international news.

Will there be a national unity government?

 

This question may appear irrelevant to some observers. But many who are familiar with Thai political development frequently ask this question.

Behind it is an assumption that the event may unfold in a similar fashion to 14 October and the 1992 Black May. In both events there were violent confrontations between the military and protesters, and the monarch came in to intervene as a mediator calling for the violence to stop. In both cases, King Rama IX presided at the negotiation table where a junta leader made a decision to resign, and where a high-profile citizen was royally appointed to lead an interim government and launch a transition from dictatorship to democracy by drafting a new constitution. Hence a national unity government.

It is possible that this pattern will be repeated. But certain conditions have to be met:

(a) there needs to be a violent confrontation between the military and the protesters;

(b) both parties must perceive the monarch as a legitimate actor;

(c) the monarch must perceive the feasibility of launching a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Condition (a) has so far not been met. As elaborated earlier, there is still no sign of a large-scale crackdown, thus no violent confrontation. As for condition (b), the protesters want the monarchy to exist, but they also demand monarchy reform so that it has an appropriate place in a democratic society. They have also said they would not accept a royally appointed prime minister nor a national unity government. So the answer to the condition (b) remains unclear. (This statement cannot be treated as an accusation against the protesters of ingratitude towards the monarchy.)

And then condition (c) will determine the kind of national unity government, which could simply be a military junta instead of an interim civilian government if there is a double-dip coup and the protesters lose. In that case, the monarchy may approve an interim junta government. Hence an illegitimate form of national unity government.

Since before the 2014 military coup, rumours of a national unity government were never lacking. iLaw says that there were at least four such rumours between 2014-2019.

In February 2019, Princess Ubolratana was nominated by the Thai Raksa Chart party as a candidate for prime minister. Many speculated that it was an effort of the Thai elite in conflict to make a “super deal” and form a national unity government. The princess’ nomination was voided after the King issued a declaration and the Constitutional Court verdict to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart.

As the election turned out to be questionable, in April 2019, Democrat MP Thepthai Senpong called for a national unity government with a two year term and proposed 4 prime minister candidates from the Democrat Party to deal with political reform.

In June 2020, there was a rumour that Pheu Thai may leave the opposition camp to join Phalang Pracharat and form a national unity government. The Pheu Thai party leader Sompong Amornvivat came out to deny the claim saying that they would never accept the legitimacy of Gen Prayut’s government.

In our analysis, all these rumours lack essential ingredients. If Thai political history taught us anything, it is that a national unity government cannot be constituted without a royal mandate. The political will or initiatives of politicians themselves are not adequate. If they managed to pull it off, it would be unprecedented in Thai political history. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

What are the protesters’ shortcomings?

 

In an article in Khaosod English, a veteran human rights defender under the pseudonym Atith Keating outlined the weak points of the current student movement. The author pointed out that student protest leaders lack a coherent strategy partly because they do not have “a clear administrative structure”. As a result, “the student movement does not have any plan beyond day to day demonstration.”

Atith suggested that the student movement should refrain from making enemies out of potential allies and engage with more diverse groups by making linkages. But this is what exactly the students are doing. Where I agree with the author is that one challenge ahead is how to prolong the struggle until the end of Gen Prayut’s government or escalate momentum to the point that they can deter a large-scale crackdown.

According to what we have seen in Ukraine and Serbia, Thailand is still only in the early phase. In Ukraine, the architects of the 2005 Orange Revolution successfully mobilized 1 million protesters in Kiev. In Serbia, 2000, the Otpor movement overthrew Slobodan Milošević with 800,000 protesters gathered in Belgrade. In both countries, activist and pro-democracy politicians successfully set up a dialogue and achieved agreements with mid- to high-ranking military officers to prevent a crackdown as more people poured onto the streets.

In sum, successful resistance movements use a combination of power and persuasion to deter a large-scale crackdown. It is a lesson Thailand can use, but we are still miles away. If prolonged protests were held now, the worst possible case may be that eventually the government orders a large-scale crackdown with the help of tactics of cover-up, demonizing, and framing, just like in the 2010s.

In terms of numbers, the Thai student movement has successfully mobilized around 10,000-20,000 people onto the streets and posted a significant threat to the regime’s legitimacy. The government will have to accommodate their demands to some extent, but it is still not enough to cause a regime change. How to bring more people into the movement is beyond my brain’s capability, but this is what they must do if they want to attain their objectives. 

There is also another problem. Media outlets in the Thai right-wing often spread suspicions of internal conflict in the student movement. As an observer, I would rather not say how true these rumours may be. What I can say is that it is normal in any activity to have debates about the best course of action. Sometimes personal issues can get in the way, including jealousy, competition, personal interests, unfair treatment of colleagues, etc. Democratic ideals and commitment still hold them together, but it can’t help that sometimes things get out of hand. The question is how to deal with it.

Upcoming questions we will answer

 
  • What is the stance of the red shirt movement?
  • What does it mean when the protesters say “let it end in our generation”?
  • How the protests are reported in Thailand?
  • Is the milk tea alliance a thing?
  • What are the possible scenarios?