The Rise of Thailand’s Youth

Students demand major democratic reforms. Their creative demonstrations could open a new chapter in Thailand’s turbulent political history.

First, the anger was only visible online. Now, the young crowds organize creative mass protests. In Thailand, thousands call for a new constitution, free elections, and the end of the harassment of activists.

It was the biggest gathering since the coup d’état in 2014. After years of relatively political calmness, thousands of protesters joined a demonstration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok two weeks ago. Using themes from pop-culture, they have found creative ways to make their political claims. Their symbol, the three-finger salute, is borrowed from the movie Hunger Games. What might appear as street festival could lead to a critical point in Thailand’s turbulent modern history. “Thailand’s political situation is delicate and combustible”, warned Ake Tangsubwattana, Dean of the Faculty for Political Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Thailand witnesses the rise of a fresh democracy movement powered by social media. The protestors, among them many students and pupils, demand more political participation and civil rights in a country, which many political scholars describe as a flawed democracy.

More than that, some of the members of the new movements even call for a debate on the country’s most sacred most powerful institution: the monarchy, which, by law, nobody is allowed to criticize. Who dares to do so, risks long prison sentences.

Most of the protesters do not go that far. The Free People movement, the most prominent group, has three demands to the current government. The first point is the dissolution of parliament and a new free and fair election. The second one is the end of threatening and harassment of activists. Thirdly, they demand the drafting of a new constitution.

The youth not only makes its claims on the street. The Internet plays a major role in mobilizing supporters and organizing the protests. Facebook pages like Free People and Student Union of Thailand became a hub for dissatisfied youth where they discuss the themes of the next activities. Their demonstrations turn into parades attracting even younger crowds. Recently, even secondary school students joined the movement, doing the three-finger salute during the morning roll.

Thanks to the internet, the youth also has access to information in a country where freedom of speech is usually limited. On the other hand, access to information online might also be more and more restrained. For example, the government recently forced Facebook to block a popular page among the government critics.

Elections in a flawed democracy

Even though Thailand had elections in March 2019, it cannot be considered a real democracy. After the army staged once again a coup d’état in 2014, the military used its ruling time to cement its power. Most importantly, the generals designed a new constitution. The new charter gives a fully appointed senate a major role in the election of the Prime Minister. The constitution was approved in a referendum held by the junta in 2016, but the authorities controlled the public debate on the new charter.

The new constitution helped coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to stay in power after the election in 2019. Furthermore, the Future Forward Party (FFP), a party that was extremely successful among early voters, was dissolved after the election in a controversial court decision.

It was the forced dissolution of this party, which had triggered the first wave of protests earlier this year. Supporters of the former FFP and students organized small flash mobs all over the country, especially in universities. Human rights activists and lawyers supported their claims. Then, the spread of Covid-19 ended the protests abruptly. The protesters not only withdrew out of fear of the virus. The government had imposed an emergency law banning public gatherings.

Of course, the pandemic did not stop the anger. Covid-19 could rather increase the tensions between the Thai government and some parts of the society. Thailand’s economy has been hit hard by the sudden stop of tourism and lower global demand for its manufacturing sector.

Legal actions against movement leaders

Thanks to drastic measures, the government contained the disease successfully. However, the officials made some mistakes in mitigating the social outfalls. For example, the administration managed the distribution of instant cash support for those in need chaotically. These failures made day laborers and slum dwellers join the movement as well.

Even though the pandemic seems to be defeated in Thailand, the emergency law is still in place. While the government did not try to dissolve the protests violently, it took legal actions against some of its leaders. The most critical and prominent activists, among them human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha, have been arrested and charged for sedition. Government officials conduct house visits to frighten young protesters and their parents.

Despite the arrests of some of the protest leaders, the protests will most likely continue. The actions of the government could even increase the anger of the crowds. While Prime Minister Prayuth promises to take the concerns of the protesters seriously, he does not seem to be ready for any greater concessions. The students, on the other hand, will not back down.

Thanks to their wide online network, they have a de-central organization structure and don’t rely on a strong leadership, unlike former protest movements. The activists plan their next activities on September 19th  – it shall be countrywide. For a nation that witnessed the most coup d’états in the world and several cruel street fights, there is no way to tell how this chapter of its history will end.

Husai Chantarawirod is the Regional Program Officer in FNF’s Regional Office for Southeast and East Asia.