Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and general social upheaval, a coalition of young political activists in Thailand sparked protests against the country’s monarchy. What began as a decentralized movement in mid-July reached a new height in August with over ten thousand demonstrators flooding Bangkok’s streets. The ongoing protests call for the government’s resignation, a limit on monarchical power, and an investigation into the killings of Thai dissidents.
Understanding the mission of this protest movement requires a thorough analysis of the power dynamics within the government and the impact of recent events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, on the country’s economy and society.
In theory, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy — with both a king and a parliament overseen by a prime minister. However, in the past few years, the king’s authority has extended beyond constitutional norms. The monarchy has directly intervened to sanction overthrows of civilian governments and has used their allies to influence politics behind the scenes.
The military junta that controls the parliament reinforces the influence of the current king, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. In 2017, the government, headed by former Thai army general and current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, enacted a new Constitution that allows the military junta to appoint senate officials. In addition to these changes, the King is currently working to amend the new Constitution to facilitate his reign from abroad in Germany, where he spends most of his time.
The military has also used its authority over the judiciary to quash political opponents. In 2019, when a pro-democracy party backed by young voters called the Future Forward Party (FFP) earned a large presence in parliament, a military-controlled court ruled that the FFP received an illegal loan and forced them to disband.
The Thai youth’s vocal pro-democracy stance has broken with a long-standing taboo against criticizing the Thai monarchy and government. The Thai military has a history of staging coups and violently suppressing protest movements to protect the elites. Generation Z, too young to remember the military coups and civilian massacres of past decades, brings a breath of fresh air into Thai civil society. After the FFP’s disbandment in 2019, they began to speak out against the regime fearlessly, a precursor to the mass protest movements they would soon lead. It’s also important to note that these protests were originally largely organized by young student groups. And in early August, two major student groups raised demands for reform. These demands came just a few months after protests and demonstrations erupted in various high schools, colleges and universities throughout the country; and along with students speaking out against the government, young organizers used social media and trending hashtags to spark a national conversation.
Ultimately, the political, economic, and social developments of 2020 have marked a change in Thailand. This past year, the Thai government has continued to expand its infamously harsh lèse-majesté laws that criminalize criticizing the king and other senior royals. The police have arrested over 90 people under these laws since 2014 with sentences as long as 15 years. Although they have been in place for years, the laws have recently elicited increased opposition amid growing anger with the regime.
This rise in political dissent, and by young Thai citizens in particular, has been met with brutal suppression by the government, even beyond its borders. This past June, armed men in Phnom Penh, Cambodia abducted Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a young Thai human rights and LGBT activist, who is now presumed dead. Thai security forces are believed to be responsible due to Satsaksit’s pro-democracy activism. His disappearance is part of a worsening pattern of silencing anyone who speaks out against the government, even beyond the kingdom’s borders.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also significantly impacting Thai socio-political and economic culture. Although Thailand was able to contain the pandemic effectively, there has been public outcry over the government imposing strict social distancing measures for citizens, while allowing elites and military personnel to disregard quarantine regulations. During the pandemic’s peak in March, the government allowed the king to travel back and forth from Thailand to Germany, while pursuing an aggressive strategy of contact tracing and quarantining in government facilities for the general public. The Thai people viewed this as the government, once again, privileging elites, even amid a crisis that is often seen to impact the less privileged in society.
Even before the pandemic, however, Thailand was experiencing slow growth and critical economic troubles due to its political infrastructure. Wealth and power are linked to one’s proximity to the elites and the military. This elitism, combined with little to no redistributive measures, makes Thailand one of the world’s leaders in income inequality. Once the pandemic hit, Thailand’s tourism and trade-dependent economy was battered. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Thai economy shrank by 12.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, its worst downturn since the Asian financial crisis. This recession, combined with persistent inequality, only heightened the country’s issues and the public’s discontent with those in power — and this glaring inequality and lack of opportunity further exacerbated youth unrest.
While in lockdown, the Thai people, primarily university students, turned to social media to express their anger with these recent developments. They found a “safe space” on Twitter to break the political taboo and openly criticize the government. Although they had long felt disillusioned by those in power, the expansion of the lèse-majeste laws and the government’s handling of the pandemic this year pushed them over the edge.
When the lockdown lifted, the students took their #WhyDoWeNeedAKing and #GenerationOfChange hashtags and their Hunger Games memes to the streets. The group of students known collectively as “Free Youth” partnered with feminist and LGBT activists to form a near-daily, mass protest movement in Bangkok and other major cities.
The Thai government has not shown any willingness to listen to the protestors’ requests. The police arrested numerous demonstrators, but the king has held off on prosecuting them for now. In a Reuters article from late August, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned that if these protests and criticism of the country’s leadership continue, “everybody will be on fiery land, engulfed in flames,” and that “the nation will collapse.”
The monarchy still has broad support in the country, and the Thai youth’s “confrontation” style has been deemed extreme by older generations. Viengrat Nethipo, assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that “[the students]are too brave… they feel able to shout in front of the puuyai [grown-ups], the respected people, the people who have power.”
While it remains unlikely that their demands will be met, the protests still mark a monumental change in Thailand’s political culture. In a country that has long been quiet on governance matters, the protestors have effectively shifted the boundaries of political discourse. The youth’s power is not just in their numbers, but also in their resilience – free of the burdens and taboos of Thailand’s past. The protests have no end in sight; the self-proclaimed “Generation of Change” will continue to push for a freer Thailand, for a better present and an even stronger future.