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August 12, 2020

Asia

THAILAND: Could protesters and the government be headed for a confrontation?

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has fired a warning shot at protesters for involving the monarchy in their reform demands.
  • The next move is with the protesters, and what they do could determine whether the situation escalates in the coming months.

Anti-government demonstrators demanding a new constitution and other reforms continue to take to the streets of Thailand regularly, primarily in Bangkok but also in other cities. But on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned that they “went too far” in demanding reforms to the country’s monarchy, although he did not indicate how the government would respond. He may first want to see whether the protesters heed his warning as he likely prefers not to openly challenge a movement that the government cannot easily vilify.

Also, Prayuth may have wanted to not only warn the protesters of the limits of official tolerance, but to appease conservatives within the military and his own government who may want him to act faster to suppress the movement. The risk now is that the demonstrators could refuse to recognize these constraints and in the coming weeks and months push the envelope on their demands, i.e. again invoking the need for reform of the monarchy. This may, in turn, provoke conservatives and royalists whose long-term power and influence could be threatened by both constitutional reform and any deprecation in the public’s perceptions of the monarchy’s role as an untouchable political issue.

Should the government decide to suppress the protests now, the immediate fallout would likely be manageable; the protesting students do not yet have the numbers and they would have to rely on as yet an unknown level of broader public support to have a chance of discouraging a crackdown. For Prayuth, the risk in a hardline stance would be of public sympathy increasing for the students and polarization growing over the medium and longer term. Alternatively, Prayuth can allow some token discussions of constitutional change and reforms, while tolerating the rallies, on the belief that they will eventually lose steam. But this approach keeps the door open to the risk of the students being further emboldened should the process yield what they consider to be an unacceptable outcome. This would then cause Prayuth to lose credibility even with his conservative factions (and some suspect that this could provide Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan an opening to ask Prayuth to step down).

The students’ next moves matter

There are, therefore, many possible outcomes, both in terms of severity and time frame, for the current protests. But the first move will be with the students, who constitute the bulk of the protesters and are the most organized. They draw their numbers mainly from the universities and high schools. In some cities, their protest numbers are in the dozens or low hundreds, but in Bangkok, the gatherings can draw thousands. It has no central leadership, but Its most visible component is the Student Union of Thailand, which was set up in 2018 by two students at Thammasat University in central Bangkok. The student union’s original members were from around 10 universities, including Chulalongkorn in Bangkok, Maejo in Chiang Mai in the north, and Prince of Songkhla in the south.

The movement today does not yet have known links with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the grassroots, rural pressure group that was the backbone of support for Thaksin after the 2006 coup and which before 2014 provided the numbers for anti-government protests. Unable to tie the students in the streets to the UDD-affiliated Red Shirts will make it difficult for Prayuth and the military to directly attack the students as proxies of Thaksin to immediately justify a crackdown. In fact, many of those in the movement supported Future Forward Party and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, during the 2019 elections. However, with Future Forward’s dissolution and Thanathorn choosing a more traditional route, i.e. contesting the vote at the local level, the students’ immediate goals and tactics may be diverging from Future Forward’s.

And it is here where the risk lies. The students are likely to be less willing to recognize or accept the social taboos against involving the monarchy in political debates — even the Red Shirts avoided tagging the monarchy in antigovernment protests in 2010 . They may also not have the patience to pursue election-based reform. Eventually, in defining their goals and methods, the students may draw parallels with, or inspiration from, the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT), a coordinating group among several of the country’s universities that was set up in 1970 and which became politically active in 1972, eventually playing a key role the 1973 uprising that ended the dictatorship of General Thanom Kittikachorn. Notably, the students in 1973 not only campaigned on pro-democracy issues but capitalized on public disenchantment across a broad range of issues, from government interference in the judiciary’s power to cronyism. The NSCT eventually became a focal point for many public aspirations on social change in Thailand and it was considered to be high point of student participation in politics.

The current Student Union does not yet have the same resonance, but if the economic weakness persists and the battle for influence and control continues within the government, then public support for the movement’s demands may grow – posing not only a challenge for Prayuth, but possibly the networks in the military and monarchy that only a few years ago appeared set to dominate Thai politics for the foreseeable future.

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