(Word of warning: I will try my best to remain neutral but there may be some bias in my writing.)
How did it start?
Back in 2014, a military coup occurred as part of the 2013-14 political crisis, when anti-government protesters sought to reduce the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Prime Minister, on domestic politics. (Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was the current Prime Minister, giving Thaksin an avenue through which to influence the country’s internal affairs). Yingluck was removed from power and a military government, led by army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, was installed.
Since then, the military government has repealed the 2007 constitution and established the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation. Prayut made himself Prime Minister and continues to serve in this role, having been re-elected in the 2019 general election. Despite this, many have criticized the election as “partly free and not fair”, as the Secretariat of the Senate was allowed to vote (normally it wouldn’t) and Prayut was allowed to remain in office as the leader of the new ‘Palang Pracharat Party’ – a Myanmar-style civil-military party that is essentially sponsored by the government.
The majority of those who disagree with the election results are part of the young population who don’t want their future to be determined by the previous generation. This has resulted in a surge in support for the newly established Future Forward Party, led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which has positioned itself as an alternative to traditional political parties. It is strongly against the NCPO and has unveiled policy plans that would support the needs of future generations.
During their time in office, the incumbent political party has largely focused on military expenditure (despite a budget reduction in late 2019), and the constitutional court is unable to investigate them due to their overwhelming power and influence. This has led to a mistrust of the government among opposition groups and ultimately sparked protests, especially after the shutdown of the Future Forward Party.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 outbreak has shown just how ineffective the government is. Despite the fact that there has been a relatively low number of cases, the government failed to foresee the economic damage that would result from a significant drop in tourism and they were unable to provide funds for those affected by the virus, such as struggling businesses and the unemployed.
The protests have also led to a large number of young people questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy. The new king, Maha Vajiralongkornissue (King Rama X), has not been an effective monarch; allegations about his personal life have created controversy and he is held in much less esteem than his father, who ruled Thailand for more than 70 years. Also, the country’s ‘lèse majesté’ legislation – which makes it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the royal family – is one of the strictest in the world, further contributing to anti-monarchy sentiment.
Timeline of the protests: 23rd February 2020
The protests were triggered when the Constitutional Court issued a decision that disbanded the Future Forward Party, an opposition party which was popular among young people. According to the court, this was done to prevent the party from inciting an uprising against the regime. Demonstrations erupted in numerous high schools, colleges, and universities, although the impact of these were limited by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Protests also occurred on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, through the use of various political hashtags. For example, #เสาหลักจะไม่หักอีกต่อไป (‘the pillar will not be broken longer’) was used by students at Chulalongkorn University, and สลิ่ม (Salim, a word derived from the Thai dessert “sarim”) was used to express disdain for pro-military conservatives.
July – Early October 2020
These protesters, organized under the name “เยาวชนปลดแอก” (The Free Youth), announced three core demands:
- The resignation Prayut Chan-O-Cha, and the removal of the Palang Pracharat Party from government;
- Modification of the 2017 constitution, which favoured the civil-military government;
- The abolition of the country’s ‘lèse majesté’ legislation and the expansion of freedom of speech.
Protestors adopted the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games as a protest against the government and as a representation of democracy.
After 18th July, protests spread into other provinces and even to Thai communities in foreign nations, such as France (Paris), the UK (London), and the USA (New York).
Mid October – Present: Protests Turn Violent
On 14th October 2020, the protests turned violent. Clashes occurred between anti-government protestors and the Loyalists (right-wing groups who support the monarchy and the current government).
This prompted the government to issue a month-long ‘state of emergency’, which banned public gatherings and aimed to prevent future protests. In addition, the police arrested anti-government leaders and public transportation was shut down.
But these moves proved counterproductive. Protestors have only been angered further and continue to express their opposition to the government. This left the government no choice but to abolish the state of emergency on 22nd October; otherwise, they risked further unrest and the possibility of foreign intervention. (Global organizations like the UN have criticized the Thai government for their abuse of human rights, restrictions on free speech, and their use of unwarranted violence).
The protests received international attention on 16th October when the police dispersed a gathering of activists using water that had been contaminated with skin and eye irritants. The incident was condemned around the world and sparked renewed interest in Thailand’s political situation.
The scale of the protests grew, and it became increasingly difficult for the government to disperse protestors without causing further violence. The state launched an attempt to ban media platforms like Voice TV, The Standard, and even the Telegram application, which was used by young protestors to communicate and spread news which was critical of the regime. However, their request was denied; it was derided as a “silent coup” that sought to further limit freedom of speech.
Protestors also demanded the immediate release of protest leaders from prison and the resignation of Prayut by 24th October. Although the government complied with these demands by releasing some leaders, the main ones remain political prisoners. Prayut has also refused to resign, leading to even more protests across the nation.
What were the reactions of those who support the government (and the monarchy)?
Despite the large number of Thai citizens (especially young people) who oppose the government and demand monarchical reform, several groups, especially the elderly, have been critical of anti-government protestors.
Many of these government defenders believe that young people are against the monarchy and trying to overthrow it. Some extreme counter-protestors, mostly loyalists, have condemned these young protestors as “traitors” and are fighting hard to defend the king and the royal family.
Some elderly citizens believe that foreign influences are to blame. They claim that these influences are using social media platforms to spread radical and progressive ideologies to the younger generation.
What will happen next?
As a politics student myself, I can confirm how difficult it is to predict the outcome of this political crisis. Many experts have even stated that this is the first time they could not accurately analyse the future of Thailand’s political environment. However, it is likely that the political heat won’t cool down anytime soon. The Prime Minister and his government might refuse to step down, and if so, the protests will likely carry on until a solution is presented that satisfies protestors and loyalists alike.
Despite this uncertainty, there is one permanent fixture of Thai politics. No matter who is in control of the government, there will always be those against the system. History also has a habit of repeating itself. Thailand has experienced a never-ending cycle of government changes, from elected parliaments to military coups and then back again. This might explain why many protestors have chanted: “Let this cycle end in our generation.”