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September 16, 2020

Asia

THAILAND: Weekend protest is a numbers game, with a bit of monarchy thrown in

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • The size of this weekend’s demonstration will strongly shape near-term narratives of the movement’s momentum.
  • It could also affect how protesters approach the issue of reforms in Thailand’s monarchy.
  • Thaksin’s Red Shirts could stay out of the spotlight, which helps limit the potential for a public confrontation.

Two days of demonstrations are set to take place in Bangkok this weekend, starting at Thammasat University on Saturday and then ending with a march to Government House on Sunday. The protesters are supposed to gather initially at the university’s Tha Phra Chan campus, but the university administration said this week — following a letter from the government — that they would be banned from the school’s grounds. The organizers of the protests are therefore considering moving to the nearby Sanam Luang park. The government letter asking school administrators to discourage their students referenced the protesters’ demand to abolish the country’s harsh lese majeste laws, labeling it “a sensitive issue that could lead to violence.”

The demonstration will be widely viewed as an important near-term milestone for the country’s protest movement, which has surprised with the momentum built up on its appeal with students and the youth, both difficult groups for the government to paint into a corner. The last major protest on 16 August drew an estimated 10,000 – 15,000 participants. Recognizing how perceptions could affect public support even as early as this weekend, police are already downplaying the possible turnout to about 20,000, which would be marginal growth compared to the public attention and media coverage it has received over the past two months. Understandably, the government will focus on conveying the idea that the protest movement has peaked. Should this narrative take hold after this weekend, then perceptions of worsening political and social instability are likely to ease.

On the other hand, organizers forecast a much higher turnout of at least 50,000, up to even 100,000. Should the rally numbers approach or even exceed the lower end of this forecast, then it will sustain speculation of more rallies in the coming months generating even greater pressure on the government. The protests could potentially increase in size and draw in more groups, which would increase pressure from royalists and the military on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to take a harsher stance against the movement — eventually raising the risk of a confrontation in the streets.

Looking beyond the numbers

But there is the caveat that looking at the numbers alone may be oversimplifying the protest dynamics and overestimating its effects on the long-term political outlook. A small increase could indicate more an issue with opposition cohesion, rather than a reversal of the public support for the protesters. The group leading this weekend’s rally is called the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, which is more aggressive in its demands for changes to the monarchy compared to the Free People that led the large 16 August rally that drew substantial media attention and confirmed the student movement’s ability to mobilize in Bangkok.

United Front’s most recognizable leader is Thammasat university student Parit Chiwarak, known more popularly as Penguin. Although he was among the earliest leaders of the pro-democracy student movement, he has taken a more radical position, making the reform of the monarchy one of his key demands. Therefore, there is some speculation that the prominent role of the United Front may be causing more moderate groups to hesitate from openly joining the rallies because they are uncertain as to what position to take on the issue of the monarchy or wary of provoking the government and the military. Should the weekend rally draw numbers closer to the police and government estimates, then Parit may be forced to tone down his rhetoric. On the one hand this would reduce the immediate threat of a confrontation with the government, but over the longer-term may facilitate the consolidation of the student protest movement.

Another group to watch remains the Red Shirt movement that used to support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For now, they seem to be willing to let the student-led movement evolve, even though they share the same sentiments against the military, government, and even the monarchy. Its leaders recognize how their presence could cause the police to take a harsher line. If the protests gain momentum, then the Red Shirts, seeing a possible critical mass, may decide to join; conversely, it is less likely that they will take to the streets if the anti-government movement loses steam.