Anti-government rallies that were a fixture in the fourth quarter of 2020 have returned to Bangkok’s streets. However, there are noticeable differences from the earlier protests, which could be signaling an added set of risks for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
For instance, where college and high school students were consistently the most visible participants in last year’s rallies, the current ones have a larger mix of older teens and young working-age adults, with many seemingly from the lower-income sectors that have endured the worst of the pandemic’s economic fallout. In addition, Nattawut Saikua, an MP and a prominent leader of the Red Shirt movement identified with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, joined last Sunday’s rally for the first time, after eschewing participation last year. However, he claims to be doing so only personally.
Furthermore, also unlike last year, the anger in the streets this time is directed only secondarily at the monarchy and its allies. Instead, the primary target today is Prayuth; they are demanding his resignation for mismanaging the government’s response to the current delta outbreak, including the vaccine shortfalls and uneven help given to the worst-hit sectors. In addition, they are also directing their ire against corporate entities they strongly associate with the government’s main personalities and allies, such as local duty-free giant King Power and one of the country’s largest construction firms, Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, which is owned by the family of deputy prime minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
Finally, there appears to be a slightly more aggressive group within the current movement that is willing to challenge the ban on public gatherings and confront the police on the streets. Over the past few days, they have used materials at hand such as firecrackers (including the so-called ping pong bombs), bricks and steel rods in running battles with police. They are only several hundred but have become the defining media image of the past week. Last year, the police correctly assessed that they could wait out the protest movement because of the emphasis of the protesters on avoiding violence. Similarly, this year, authorities may be hoping that the more violent confrontations between police and the demonstrators keep moderate protesters away, which would cause the demonstrations to peak soon.
The risks are two-fold — both around highly opaque political dynamics. The first is that Nattawut’s participation could encourage more Red Shirts to join, even if informally. While this would not be an immediate threat to government control, it could increase pressure on Prayuth to act more forcefully against the demonstrators, to preempt the movement’s wider involvement. This would involve suppressing the rallies and resorting to strategies used in 2015, such as a broader crackdown against the movement’s leaders and its communications network. Failure to act on Prayuth’s part could threaten his standing with elites in the monarchy and the military.
The second is that the emergence of the current protest movement from working- age youth signals that there is already a deep vein of discontent in Thai society due to the current pandemic. Consequently, a hard line response could generate sympathy for the protesters, with repercussions in terms of more joining them in the streets as well as a noticeable decline in support for the prime minister that could cause his own allies to question his viability, and which together could raise the possibility of early elections.