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July 24, 2020


THAILAND: Protests are a careful dance, for now

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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Student protesters have returned to Thailand’s streets in substantial numbers, and they are likely to continue with their demonstrations through the next few weeks. The students are demanding several political changes, with the most significant ones being the dissolution of parliament and the drafting of a new constitution. Despite a few scuffles, the police are for now keeping a careful distance to avoid inflaming sentiments, and the military says that it will monitor the situation but avoid intervening.

The protesters may therefore have some leeway, unlike in the past, and this may encourage them to press forward to see if they can muster larger gatherings. For the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, these demonstrations pose a new challenge. While the most visible demonstrations have been in Bangkok, several have also taken place in provinces that were not sources of anti-government dissent in the past. High school students are very visible in many of the rallies. The government, therefore, cannot easily dismiss the movement as being part of partisan politics of the past few years and threaten them with violent dispersal. Any heavy-handed government action now could prove unpopular and only increase public sympathy for the protesters. Targeting their leaders may also be difficult due to the seemingly diffused leadership structure of the movement.

Consequently, the government is largely reacting with a conciliatory tone, with Prayuth urging cooperation. He is likely hoping that allowing the students to gather and voice their demands will eventually lead to the demonstrations losing momentum over time, especially with concerns of further waves of Covid-19 infections. The lower house has also set up a panel to hear the student’s demands to defuse the situation, although the opposition, believing the effort to be symbolic, said it would not participate.

For the near term, therefore, the dynamic between the protest movement and the government will be one of both sides assessing the other’s reaction. The protesters seem for now to be probing government responses and their ability to build broader public support.

The risk of a confrontation will increase in any of three scenarios, none of which are yet on the horizon but need to be monitored:

  • Military paranoia: The military sees in the movement a conspiracy to attack the monarchy’s elevated status indirectly through constitutional change, resulting in the arch-conservative army chief Apirat Kongsompong pushing Prayuth to take a more forceful stance against the movement.
  • Student provocation: The movement becomes frustrated at the government’s lack of responsiveness and some groups start to violently confront security forces in their demonstrations.
  • Genuine threat to government control: The protests, although peaceful and non-threatening against the monarchy as an institution, increase in size to the point where both the government and the military consider them to be threats to their continued control. In this situation, the movement’s base grows from students to include Thais disenchanted with the management of the economy post-pandemic and possibly even the supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra or the disbanded Future Forward party. This in turn causes government policy to shift from tolerance to suppression.

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