by Janjira SombatpoonsiriApril 10, 2020
This blog post is also available in Thai.
Thailand recently witnessed a new dawn of youth-led people power, but whether the nascent protests will morph into a nationwide movement depends on an effective strategy and a unified vision for the future. Although the Coronavirus pandemic is posing new obstacles to the movement, students are seeking alternative forms of online protest and incorporating humanitarian activism into their repertoires to build constructive relationships with communities.
For a few decades, the country has been marred by virulent political divide-cum-authoritarianism that hinders broad-based grassroots mobilization. Between 2005 and 2014, pro- and anti-establishment forces orchestrated mass demonstrations to oust governments representing their respective opponents. Weaponizing mass mobilization has not only entrenched the polarization, but generated a collective sense of “protest fatigue.” Adding insult to injury, the military seizing power in 2014 has imposed a string of draconian laws criminalizing nonviolent dissent, both online and offline, making repression less bloody but more obstructive. Public gathering is virtually outlawed and clicking a “like” on a critical Facebook post can cost you a 35-year jail sentence.
Despite the crackdown, young Thais have courageously resorted to social media memes, arts, and music to criticize ruling elites, and sometimes staged symbolic nonviolent actions offline—something that is on hold now that the Coronavirus pandemic has prompted the emergency decree declaration since March 26. The latest episode of youthful rebellion continues and accelerates this defiance.
The trigger event for student protests was the 2020 pro-regime Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party (FFP), which symbolizes the establishment’s persistent abuse of power. To be sure, young people have long been frustrated with the junta and its allies including the palace and corporate conglomerates who run the country as their personal asset. As a result, state institutions became highly incompetent, wealth concentrated in the hands of despotic elites, and the rule of law utterly scrapped. This version of “old” Thailand has no place for a youthful future.
With the 2019 election results announced, the progressive FFP has embodied hope for democratic changes, thus gaining traction among the younger generation and attracting 6.3 million votes, out of around 53 million voters. Due to its fast-rising popularity and outspoken leadership, the FFP has been met with countless smear campaigns and several court cases, one of which propelled the Court to disband it on February 21 of this year.
For young Thais, the FFP’s dissolution implies their voices have been dismissed. According to a student protester, youngsters are furious because the government “employs… its state power, judicial power or other organizations to silence us and to get what they want.” Between February 22 and March 13, the rage drove student protests on more than 50 university campuses and schools across Thailand. Primary demands were the prime minister’s resignation and constitutional amendments.
Key characteristics of student protests were threefold. First, these were “networked protests” in terms of mobilization and organization. Students from each campus and school created a distinct Twitter hashtag they could rally around. The hashtag was typically based on a university/school motto mixed with an anti-regime slogan. Dozens of different hashtags became a joint campaign that conveyed the anti-regime agenda, while reflecting the students’ diverse self-identifications. Relatedly, each institution had its own organizing team with loose cross-campus coordination via umbrella organizations such as the Student Federation and Student Union Coalition. Networked campuses allowed leadership decentralization and tactical flexibility.
Second, their protest tactics combined online and offline platforms. Each campus carried out a flash mob comprising a wide array of seemingly spontaneous activities such as collective singing, aerobic dancing, short speeches, mock funerals, and chanting. One advantage was that these activities could be easily live-streamed and later uploaded as short video clips. Live-streaming increased the protests’ visibility and provided an alternative channel of participation beyond campuses. An additional feature of online-offline crossover was the hashtags students posted on Twitter and simultaneously inscribed on protest banners. Most of these were acronyms and online slang invented to conceal direct criticism of regime figures. One trending acronym is “phor-nor-ngor-ror-chor-tor-kor-mor,” which means, “we will all die because of the moronic leader/prime minister.”
Lastly, the tactical flash mob develops from years of cat-and-mouse activism under the junta. Student organizers put together the “How-To-Mob Manual” which details legal loopholes in draconian laws, and things they could do to avert lawsuits. For instance, festivities, marathons, and processions are considered legal. So are student activities within a campus/school vicinity. Protest “gigs” were deliberately shortened to avoid disrupting public life, which might give ground for arrests. Similarly, to avoid defamation charges, some protest banners concealed highly charged political messages with subcultural slang and word plays indecipherable to authorities.
Student activists are currently at a crossroads. Should they seek to transform from “mob” to movement, they would need to overcome the following challenges:
First, networked protests are generally short-lived due to the lack of organizational structure. Creating a 21st century movement needs leadership consistent with the new mode of horizontal mobilization and at the same time effective in navigating directions of activism.
Second, this movement should present a vision for the future that appeals to the majority of Thais, especially the regime’s pillars of support. This is extremely challenging in divided Thailand, but the prospect is not completely bleak, as the regime’s legitimacy is gravely endangered by its incompetence amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The movement would need to work with other political actors and offer a better proposal of democratic and responsive governance.
Finally, for the movement to sustain its momentum, students would need to plan ahead a series of long-haul campaigns for rooting democracy in Thailand. These campaigns may entail addressing the problem of inequality and its impact on vulnerable communities amid the pandemic, building civilian-based defense against future coups, galvanizing public pressure on politicized courts, and winning public support for democracy through the reorientation of Thai national identity from authoritarianism to democratic cultures.
Dr. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is currently affiliated with Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. Her research focuses on civil resistance, civil society, and democratization in Asia. She is the author of Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2015).Read More