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August 18, 2020

Asia

THAILAND: Expect more protests, and maybe politics entering uncharted territory

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)

Protesters on Sunday held the largest anti-government gathering since the 2014 coup, with crowd estimates ranging from 10,000 – 15,000. The high turnout will likely encourage the movement, which now calls itself the Free People, to hold more demonstrations over the next few weeks to see how much momentum they can build, especially in terms of growing their numbers to a broader cross-section of Thai society. This would then allow them to maintain pressure on the government. In fact, this goal of broadening public support may be the reason for the group’s name change to Free People from Free Youth, the student-led organization.

The government is still avoiding a hard line response, likely on the belief that by avoiding a crackdown and nominally agreeing to some of their demands, the demonstrations could lose steam. So far it has charged a few protest leaders and kept to vague warnings for the movement to avoid provocations. The movement is still highly amorphous, and the government may be hoping that by offering concessions, it could be split between those open to a formal process and those wanting to stay on the streets. To this end, the parliamentary majority agreed on Monday to study an opposition proposal for a first step in constitutional change — the revision of Article 256, which makes the Senate a part of the revision process. This provision is seen as a significant procedural hurdle to constitutional change.

How the situation could quickly change

However, there are risks even to this near-term outlook. The first possibility is that public support for the movement is broadly underestimated and that the other groups could start to join them out in the open in the coming weeks — thus creating a groundswell that the government could see as imminently threatening its control or social stability. The primary concern for the government in this regard are the Red Shirts, the mass movement that supported former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, but which had been suppressed by the military since 2014. According to some reports, there were Red Shirts at Sunday’s gathering; if true, they are still a minority, but should their participation grow, then the government or the hard line factions in it may no longer see the protest movement benignly. There are signs that the government believes the protesters receive funding from politicians — and that it could therefore eventually discredit the movement as not purely driven by democratic aspirations once it finds these links.

The second is if the protesters sharpen their demands, and set deadlines. The Twitter feed of Free People, for instance, lists its three demands: for the government to stop the harassment of protesters, the drafting of a new constitution, and the dissolution of parliament. But it also states that the group’s dream is “to have a constitutional monarchy” — a vague term because on paper Thailand is already a constitutional monarchy.

Initially, Free People’s precursor, the Free Youth, also avoided mentioning the monarchy, but on 18 July, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa asked for a public debate on its role during a rally. The spokesperson for the Thammasat University-based Student Union raised ten reform issues for the institution at a rally on 10 August, especially against the strict lese majeste laws. Last Sunday’s protesters did not mention any of these issues, however. There is likely still some debate on how hard to push the issue, with the recognition that an early provocation may not only stir up royalists but also fracture the movement. There is also a lack of clear signals — understandably — as to how much room royalists in the military and the Bangkok establishment are willing to grant the protesters before they push back.

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