March 11, 2021

Asia

THAILAND: Protests have lost some momentum, but a write-off would be premature

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • Protests restarted in mid-February, but their frequency and size in the month since then have fallen well short of those last year, easing the immediate pressure on the government.
  • The sentiments that strongly drove the demonstrations persist, but coordination and, secondarily, enthusiasm, seem to have declined.
  • It is too early to write off the movement, but it still faces the same challenge of broadening its base and defining an endgame.

Ever since the protests restarted in February, they have been less frequent and smaller. Media report several hundred having joined the two most prominent demonstrations in recent weeks, down from the several to even tens of thousands in the fourth quarter of last year. This has eased the immediate pressure on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the leading Palang Pracharath (PPRP) party in parliament, with some of the political focus turning to the start of the country’s vaccination campaign.

The political anger within the movement that drove the protesters into the streets last year has not changed, but rather, the mobilization has lost some of its momentum, for various reasons.

The Covid-19 spike in mid-December still generates a broad sense of caution that affects protesters’ willingnes to gather. Although the seven-day average for new cases is down to a few dozen from nearly eight hundred at its peak at end-January, it still strongly contrasts with the single-digit numbers during the peak of the protests.

Also, the numerous legal cases against some of the movement’s most prominent faces seem to have weakened coordination. Earlier this week, state prosecutors filed sedition cases against 18 activists, while a court denied three prominent protest leaders bail. Although the different groups that organize the protests claim to not have any structure, they have still relied on these de facto leaders to catalyze support and attention within their bases. For this reason, the government has used the more serious charge of defaming the monarchy to deny many of them bail.

That the activists do not have a defined leadership may also be a double-edged sword. While it strengthens the narrative of an organic movement that stands apart from entrenched elites and political groups, it also lacks a long-term strategy that would sustain the protests beyond the waves of enthusiasm. This may have also limited their ability to coordinate with other groups, such as the Red Shirts or the formal opposition. Also, the absence of a leadership keeps the movement and its goals ad-hoc and near term.

There are still potential triggers on the horizon that could bring protesters back into the streets after this lull, with the primary one being the trial of the different leaders, which is due to start sometime this month. However, this also gives the government an incentive to focus attention on the case by prolonging the proceedings. Protesters may become more confident to return around April or May, should the downturn in new Covid-19 cases be firmly established for several more weeks.

However, even though the protests may be rekindled, the challenges that it faces, remain the same — the need to bring in other groups outside its youth base, define its long-term goals and coordinate better with the established political opposition. Absent these, the movement will be vulnerable to swings in sentiment in its core.

Furthermore, without a fracturing of the powerful elite factions in the military, monarchy and business community, the government will continue to attempt to ride out these waves of sentiment, confident of its support from Thai institutions and with elections still a few years away. So far, the economic slowdown does not appear to have generated enough resentment for the broader public to conflate their complaints of the government’s management of the economy and the pandemic with the protesters’ grievances, which could be another catalyst for a broader and more politically threatening movement if this were to occur.

For the next year, therefore, Thailand may be caught in these up-and-down patterns perceived instability as protests flare, followed by distinct lulls, but without being fully resolved by political compromise.

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