Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on 2020-09-23
Since the Thai Army’s 2006 coup d’etat, the military and ultra-royalist elites have worked assiduously to dismantle the political machine led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which won the most seats in every election between 2001 and 2019. The military-drafted 2017 constitution was created expressly to prevent Thaksin’s Pheu Thai from ever dominating Thai politics again.
So obsessed with Thaksin and his party, the elites have missed the rise of a new generation of political activists who are not tied to the clashes between red shirts representing Thaksin’s supporters and yellow shirts representing royalists that have stalemated Thai politics for more than a decade.
The movement today is organic, horizontal and led by a slew of enormously courageous youths who are willing to challenge political orthodoxies.
The elites got an inkling of what was to come with the surprisingly strong performance of the Future Forward Party in the March 2019 elections. Future Forward, established only a year before and headed by a young and charismatic billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, dominated the youth vote and garnered 81 seats, making it the third-largest party.
Its clear mandate for political reform, amending the constitution and removing the Thai military from politics, pushed the military and ultra-royalist elites to move quickly against Thanathorn. He was removed from parliament on spurious legal charges, Future Forward was dissolved (though re-established as Move Forward) and its leaders barred from politics. There have been about 20 different legal cases against Thanathorn, his organization and colleagues.
The disenfranchisement of Future Forward angered youths who took to the streets in mass demonstrations, starting two months ago. This past weekend saw the largest demonstrations in years.
Meanwhile, the government of military-backed ultra-royalist septuagenarians is at a loss as to how to respond.
They have tried intimidation. The government has relied on Article 112 of the Criminal Code (Lese-Majeste) and the Computer Crimes Act.
Overseas activists have been disappeared and opposition leaders have washed up on the banks of the Mekong, across from Laos, with their stomachs – unsubtly – filled with concrete. The security forces arrested about 15 leaders of the July protests and will likely follow suit with the leaders of the September demonstrations.
To date, all have been freed on bail, but the police are sending clear signals. The Special Branch has a new force to focus on the protesters.
Security forces have been somewhat restrained even when, over the weekend, protesters broke through the police line in Sanam Luang next to the Grand Palace. The optics of a crackdown against a youth movement can never be good. The government would at the least like the protests to remain focused in the capital and not become a nationwide phenomenon.
But the restraint likely reflects a genuine concern by the security forces. The young protesters are not simply calling for new elections – they are demanding the complete overhaul of Thai politics, including returning the military to barracks and thoroughly reforming the monarchy.
While the government grudgingly accepted opposition demands recently to discuss amending parts of the constitution, Article 1 (the monarchy) was explicitly deemed off limits. The students – in their three-point demands issued over the weekend – specifically called for amendment of that article, among others.
The monarchy is clearly feeling insecure. In the annual military reshuffle, the top positions went to a new faction, known as the Red Rim, many of whose officers have served in a unit that reports directly to the King.
Never have we seen the monarch demand such personal fealty.
The protesters have already taken on the monarchy, an unprecedented step. If the leadership were to crack down on them, it likely would result in even greater calls for reform of the monarchy, especially as the king has largely been abroad during the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis in Thailand.
The military is sensitive to the protesters' other grievances, including the state of the economy.
Despite the country’s effective handling of the medical crisis, the second largest economy in Southeast Asia has been hard hit by COVID-19, which has decimated tourism (18 percent of GDP) and exports. The Thai economy contracted by 12 percent in the second quarter of 2020; 2 million to 3 million people lost their jobs, while the Asia Foundation estimates that 70 percent of the workforce has seen a 47 percent cut in their income.
The government has tried small-scale stimulus packages to boost spending, but they are insufficient. A recent cash stimulus package of U.S. $1.6 billion, including 1,500 baht ($47) to the 14 million poorest, is simply insufficient to deal with a recession this deep.
The government authorized additional holidays, hoping to encourage people to boost spending, but with money they do not have.
The recession has brought to the forefront that Thailand is one of the most inequitable societies in the world and the concentration of wealth has accelerated since the 2006 coup.
The grievances of the young people, who have seen their economic prospects dim and inequality soar in their lifetime during a period when the military has largely controlled the country, are not going away anytime soon.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is in another bind. His mishandling of the economy has started to irritate his own elite backers. While he has been convenient, he’s not irreplaceable. Not cracking down on the students could be the justification the elites need to replace him.
The question is whether the protests can be sustained. The fact that they are largely leaderless, makes it hard for the government to arrest its way out of the situation, though authorities will try.
The youth leaders have demonstrated enormous courage and their message resonates widely.
The fact that the protests largely have not been tied to any political leader or party is both an asset and a liability. By keeping their organizational distance, opposition figures are not giving the military an opportunity to move against them.
On the other hand, it is hard to see the protests effectively forcing change, whether through constitutional amendments or sustained pressure in parliament, without the backing or coordination with opposition leaders.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and Georgetown University in Washington and author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.