- After nearly two months, protests have restarted.
- Health concerns may limit the size and frequency of rallies in the near term.
- The main question remains the ability of the protest movement to broaden its base.
Protesters have taken to the streets the past two days for the first time since December. This followed a court order Tuesday denying bail for several of their leaders — including a prominent student activist and lawyer. The anti-government movement had vowed a return in 2021, but a sudden increase in Covid-19 cases that started late last year appears to have affected their timetable, at least until this week.
This week’s demonstrations so far have been still relatively small, several hundred to slightly more than a thousand, and may not approximate the sizes of last year’s gatherings anytime soon because of public health concerns. After posting near-zero cases through the summer and fall, the number of cases rose in December due to an outbreak at a seafood market in the province of Samut Sakhon, just south of Bangkok. The spike was a shock for both the public and the government, even though the numbers were only a fraction of those of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Targeted business and movement restrictions, as well as intense testing and contact tracing, appear to have prevented the outbreak from worsening and it is possible that the numbers could continue to drop in the coming weeks.
The government is also using other means to wear down the protesters, and hinder their ability to coordinate. Initially, the movement's key leaders were charged with sedition. However, since November, they also been charged with royal defamation using the country’s strict lese royal defamation law, which carries a longer jail sentence. Opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the high-profile founder of the disbanded Future Forward party, who has expressed support for the movement, has also been charged with a lese majeste violation after he questioned the government’s reliance on Siam Bioscience for the country’s vaccine production. The firm is fully owned by the Crown Property Bureau. Later next week, prosecutors will decide whether to charge him with a criminal violation of the country’s electoral laws, due to a ruling last year of the electoral commission that he violated a requirement by not divesting his shares in a media company before running for parliament.
Broadening the movement’s base remains its biggest hurdle
Several events over the next two months could help drive protesters into the streets again. The first is a censure debate scheduled to start next week against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Meanwhile, even while parliament moves toward a rewriting of the 2017 constitution, it will avoid monarchical reform, which is one of the protesters' key demands. Therefore, the process is unlikely to result in a political compromise. The royal defamation cases that triggered this week's demonstrations will also be heard starting mid-March. With Covid-19 cases possibly declining in the coming weeks and political antagonisms being generated by these events, the government's reprieve may not be long-lived.
One protest leader said their target is to eventually gather two million in the streets. However, to achieve that, they will need to overcome one of their main challenges since last year, which is to broaden the movement’s base beyond the urban youth and students that now constitute the bulk of it. Their prevalence in the demonstrations has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, worried about negative perceptions, security forces have avoided violent dispersals. However, at the same time the inability of the students to stay on the streets continuously and for prolonged periods (unlike the Red Shirts in 2010) has caused the government to treat them more as an inconvenience to be managed, rather than a threat to its control and legitimacy. One risk is if economic conditions continue to worsen, then public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic may conflate with the pro-democracy movement, bringing other socio-economic groups out into the streets in support and sympathy. This is for now a low-level risk and may take months to build, but one that cannot be fully discounted.