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Thailand in Turbulence: Lost in Generation

With the early morning declaration of a state of emergency on October 15 and the crackdown on the pro-democracy group on October 16 in the name of national security, Thailand is undergoing a rough path of democratic transitioning.

Protesters in raincoats at the Victory Monument on 18 October. They used hand gestures to communicate with each other.

And yet, the Thai demonstrators still stand tall and strong in defiance against the higher power. While the student-led movement acts in a 4.0 manner, the government still has its head stuck in the cold war. More than 50 years have passed, but what’s happening here is a repeat of the same pattern from the old days, especially the strategy counter-protest from the government side. And subsequently, they are losing.

Mirror, mirror on the street, what does this mistreat tell you about Thailand?

The government is fragile. They are struggling to get back on their feet. And they are yet to find any potential solutions to the current turbulence. These demonstrations have proven to be a walking destruction of the government’s legitimacy. One might also call it the self-delegitimization of the Prayut Chan-o-cha regime.

Since October 14, all the government’s counter-protest measures have been ineffective. The declaration of the state of emergency and the arrest of protest leaders was a signal paving the way for the government’s next move. It did alarm the people but did nothing to stop them. Then, the use of water cannon on demonstrators was a trigger. The government believed that by instilling fear in the people’s mind, especially the young, would guarantee the end of this movement. But it backfired.

Lastly, the attempts to restrict freedom of the press and expression on online platforms was a terrible move. This strategy is outdated, especially during a time of high connectivity and transnationalism. It can never stop the spread of knowledge. As a result, the protesters refused to give up. Their numbers increased and their rallies expand from a couple of spots in the urban area of Bangkok to other provinces nation-wide. People have been comparing this situation like the myth of the Hydra: cut off one head, two more will take its place.  Not only did the protestors have no fear of a crackdown, they even feel the need to come out and join hands against Injustice.

Yes, the government of Prayut Chan-o-cha is now unjust in the eyes of many. And the government is having a hard time accepting it. Worse, they are having a hard time managing it. With all due respect, their attempts might have worked in the past, but things change. Modern problems require modern solutions. Yet decision-makers, especially those in the field of national security, are still stuck in the cold war. And they don’t seem to be moving on anytime soon.

Let’s analyse their action.

We saw media coverage and the government’s statements, claiming that the current movement is being manipulated by a certain group of people. In one way, this can be considered as a government strategy to justify their action and gain public support through the mass media. However, it can also reflect the genuine understanding of society by the military government . Their strategies derive from their past experience with anti-government movements and limited knowledge of global changes. They reflect how little the military government understands the ways of the civilian world: and even less of the international arena.

They believe that, similar to their structure, demonstrators only strictly follow orders from the head of the operation. There is no true movement fighting for ideology. These demonstrations are no different from past anti-government protests. The values of the age hierarchy in Thai society also generates a further belief that the young are politically naïve, easily manipulated by politicians. So the government began their crackdown operations, assuming that by taking out those claimed to be the heads of this movement might put an end to this turbulence. The answer is obviously no.  

Protesters hit by high-pressure jets from police water cannon on 16 October.

Their strategy is old. Their perception is ancient. The world is changing fast. And that’s the reason why the government are struggling to handle this movement. After the police crackdown on October 16 backfired, the government were dumbfounded. Their strategy didn’t work out the way they had planned. During the period of repeated protests after the crackdown, the government could only dance around in the palm of the younger generation’s hand. Law enforcement doesn’t work. Violence is not a helpful option. Complying with the protestors’ demands is definitely not a preferred scenario. Predicting a headless movement is also hard. Before they can even react, the demonstration is already long gone. Even their ‘coup cure-all’ is not the perfect solution anymore. Their situation is actually helpless.

What’s worse is that they don’t acknowledge that fact that they can’t keep up with the young. Instead, they have been fitting the current situation into their understanding of the world. They still perceive the idea of a conflict of interest between groups of people, anti-government and pro-government, as an internal threat. And that somewhere out there in the protest lies a leader who they must catch. The government cannot yet grasp the idea of a headless movement. Or maybe they just don’t buy it. But for whatever the reason, they are losing in this chess game by not changing their strategy and perception.  

Differences in perceptive communication between generation

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement has adapted to global trends. They use digital technology to their advantage. Unlike the government side, pro-democracy demonstrators grow from their experience of Thai demonstrations, not just learn. They see the pattern and study the behaviour of the military government, applying the Hong Kong Model to the Thai context. They introduce the 4.0 version of demonstrations, one that is without any violence or agitation, mobilized on social media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and, especially, Telegram. Telegram, a platform widely used bydemonstrators, protects the privacy of the users by alternating IP addresses and can be covered by VPN. Even if the government shut down internet access, Telegram would still function by Bluetooth, allowing protestors to communicate with each other. Here is the difference between common communication platforms like Line, which is used by older generations only for spreading social greetings.

Their battleground has expanded from traditional demonstrations on the street to virtual space. The government, too, has attempt to follow with their own online information operations. But does it work? Not really. The government still uses information just like back in the cold war days. They don’t understand how the younger generation dominates the virtual space. They don’t even understand the terms VPN and such. They don’t understand social media as the younger generation do. Therefore, their influence on media and information is not fast enough and clever enough to cover the alleged fake news. Eventually, when they can’t compete, they close the platforms as seen in the attempt to shut down Telegram and news media like Voice TV.

In the end, these demonstrations reflect not only the traditional perception of decision-makers but are also a good example of changes in society, especially the bureaucratic structure. They prove that outdated management in the present day is ineffective. Everyone can become a leades in the equivalent of a literal bottom-up approach within the organisation. Hierarchies or red tape are not always necessary.

As such Thailand is struggling inside the turbulence of differences. The pro-democracy movement is pushing toward turning the pages of the history book, while the government are still glued to the page on traditional security.

Kwankaow Kongdecha is a researcher at the Office of Innovation for Democracy, King Prajadhipok's Institute.