October 15, 2020


THAILAND: Heightened Polarization and Risk of Unrest

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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  • The likely trigger for the emergency decree was the near-confrontation between a royal motorcade and a group of protesters Wednesday afternoon.
  • This may have swung internal debates on how to deal with the movement in favor of conservatives and royalists in the military.
  • Another protest is being called for late afternoon in Bangkok, and a confrontation is possible.
  • Even if the police succeed in keeping the streets clear, events of the past few days will heighten political polarization.

The Thai government today imposed a state of emergency in response to Wednesday’s protests. Gatherings by more than five people are now prohibited and any media or online — presumably including social — reporting on the issue that could be considered as harmful to national security is prohibited. Protesters that were gathered around Government House starting late Wednesday afternoon and planned to stay until the weekend were dispersed without much incident. Around 20 people have reportedly been arrested and the most high-profile leaders may have been transferred out of Bangkok. The remaining protest leaders say they will gather again at 4 pm Bangkok time.

What triggered the crackdown?

Wednesday’s events may have given royalists and conservatives within the monarchy and the military the upper hand in the internal debate over how to handle the protest movement. The government for the past few months appeared willing to tolerate their presence in the streets. But the trigger for today’s declaration may have been the near- confrontation on Wednesday afternoon between a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and a group of anti-government protesters. The demonstrators slowed the queen’s vehicle, and then raised their hands in the three-finger salute that had become the symbol for the movement. It was a direct and open challenge, directed at the monarchy, and unheard- f in Thailand, at least over the past four decades.

A second trigger may have been the plan of the protesters to surround Government House for at least three days. Previously, the police assessment was that the protest movement had neither the capability nor the intention to occupy Bangkok’s streets in the same manner as the Red Shirts did in 2010. Thus, the announcement from the protesters that they would stay until the weekend may have increased apprehension within the government and among security forces of gaining momentum if more people joined.

What next?

Mid-morning Thursday, protest leaders called for their supporters to return to the streets late in the afternoon, in disregard of the government’s order and despite the arrests earlier today. With the security clampdown, police are unlikely to yield the streets and a confrontation is possible because anyone who participates will be in direct violation of the emergency decree. The place for the Thursday afternoon protest is Ratchaprasong, the commercial district where Red Shirt protesters had similarly gathered in 2010 before being dispersed. How many protesters are willing to gather this afternoon and whether they are willing to openly confront police are the key variables to how this afternoon’s events could turn out. Another factor to watch in the coming days is how other political actors sympathetic to the movement, such as opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the Move Forward Party, and the Red Shirts, react.

But even if the police are successful in clearing Bangkok’s streets, it will be an enforced peace and the developments will heighten political and social polarization — with the protesters clearly seeing the crackdown as a reaction by conservatives within the government. Thus, the risk of further challenges to the government, and increasingly intolerant security response will persist. A process for constitutional change is unlikely to change the protesters’ sentiments.