In light of the ongoing cases of politically-motivated violence and charges against activists and journalists in Thailand, this piece is being published anonymously.
After the most recent military coup d’etat 6 years ago, Thailand is in the midst of yet another political turmoil. Beginning earlier this year and briefly halted by the spread of COVID-19, a pro-democracy protest resumed recently. Led by several student coalitions, the protest demands, among others, the resignation of the current Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-Ocha. Although Thailand has had its fair share of political protests, most of which ended in a coup, this series of protests is different, unprecedented at least on two fronts: the adoption of Hong Kong’s “Be Water” model, and its controversial demands.
For a while now, discontentment has been boiling among the youth, especially on Twitter. They heavily questioned the election of 2019, which brought the military-led government back into power, for its potential fraud. Soon after, Future Forward Party, a popular pro-democracy opposition, was dissolved under dubious political charges, and some of its members were banned for 10 years from politics. From time to time, popular hashtags would trend, with the tweets lashing out against the government for its incapability to solve social and economic issues, as well as alleged corruption. Since the beginning of July, the conversation is getting louder, moving beyond internet platforms to actual streets.
The “Be Water” Model
Today’s protest adopts Hong Kong’s “Be Water” model inspired by Bruce Lee’s famous quote. Instead of a prolonged protest in the heart of Bangkok with designated leaders, protestors opted for a flash-mob style, announcing protesting sites less than two hours in advance. They used Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram as the main channels of communication and scattered themselves at several sites, not just in Bangkok but across Thailand, to avoid confrontation with the police. The protest is also claimed to be “leaderless” with no planned agenda and speaker in advance. The stage appears at times to be more or less spontaneous and a site for venting out anger against the government.
From October, 14th to 21st, we saw flash mobs popping up all over Thailand, especially in the greater Bangkok area. Thousands of people took over the main intersections of Bangkok for 2 hours and dispersed with no sign. The police were unable to predict their movements. On October 15th, the Prime Minister declared the state of emergency, prohibiting the gathering of more than four people in Bangkok. As protestors pushed forward regardless, the government responded harshly using high-pressure water cannons, mixed with unidentified chemical substances to break them up.
The Unprecedented Demands
It was not clear at the beginning as to what the people really wanted apart from an immediate resignation of the current prime minister. Two rallies, the “Harry Potter” Protest held in July and the Thammasat Rangsit Protest held in September, however, were the defining moments of this movement. The “Harry Potter” Protest to dispel “He Who Must Not Be Named” was organized by two student groups, Mahanakorn for Democracy Group and Kased Movement. One of its speakers, Anon Numpa, a human right lawyer, directly addressed the role of the monarchy in politics and advocated for more transparency in budgeting relating to the monarchy — an unprecedented move that broke the long-held yet unwritten taboo in Thailand to speak up against the monarchy in public.
In a subsequent protest, the Thammasat Rangsit Protest, organized by another student group called the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul reiterated the role of the monarchy in Thai politics. Going even further than Anon Numpa, she got on stage to read a now-famous 10-point manifesto calling for a reform of the monarchy. Both speeches sparked highly polarized reactions on social media platforms. Supporters of the movement praised their actions as courageous and progressive, while opponents condemned the actions as disrespectful and unlawful.
Thereafter, the Free People Group, a coalition of many student-led and people-led groups, launched its campaign — the Three Demands and One Dream. Their “Three Demands and One Dream” now becomes a consensus of the current movement against the government. The demands echoed and were certainly inspired by the Siamese revolution of 1932, which brought down the absolute monarchy and instituted a democratic regime of a constitutional monarchy. Yet, the two movements reflected two different time frames of Thai politics. It is imperative to retrace the context of each demand to understand the ongoing protest.
The First Demand: The Government Must Stop Threatening Civil Liberty
The first demand stems from the suspicion over the government’s involvement in many incidents of human rights and civil rights violations, from unlawful arrests, assaults, and forced disappearances of pro-democracy activists, many of whom are advocates for a reform on lèse-majesté law. As a case in point, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, a human rights defender and a vocal activist against the military regime post-coup d’etat, was brutally assaulted by four unidentified men. The police have been unable to find any suspect and yet decided to stop any further investigation. Another instance is Wanchalearm “Ta” Satsaksit, a Thai political activist, living in exile in Cambodia, who was abducted on June, 4th 2020. Both the Thai and Cambodian governments denied any involvement in his disappearance.
The Second Demand: The Government Must Dissolve the Parliament
The protestors alleged illegitimacy of the Prime Minister in coming to power. Indeed, the joint assembly between the Senate and the House of Representatives elected Prayut Chan-Ocha as the Prime Minister of Thailand. The Senate was directly appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a council set up by the military after the coup, and thereby lacked the necessary link with the people. However, according to the transitional provisions in the Constitution of Thailand, they may vote to elect the Prime Minister and indeed provided 249 out of 250 votes for Prayut Chan-Ocha. Coupled with a failure of the Cabinet to curb allegations of corruption, even among its own cabinet members, the pro-democracy protest demands an immediate dissolution of the Parliament for a new election.
The Third Demand: A New Constitution from and for the People
A new constitution is perhaps the most sought after political demand made by the protesters. There have long been complaints against the undemocratic nature of the current constitution, both procedurally and substantively. After the coup d’etat in 2014, drafting a new constitution became one of the tasks to be completed and indeed it was chiefly done by Meechai Ruchuphan, the chair of the Constitutional Drafting Committee appointed by the NCPO. The subsequent referendum held on August 7, 2016, resulted in the passing of the constitution. The referendum was, however, not without criticism from pro-democracy activists due to some alleged voter suppression tactics employed by the law enforcers.
One Dream: A Reform of the Monarchy
Talking, specifically criticizing, about the monarchy in public is understood by Thais as an unwritten taboo. Some scholars, such as Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, are in political exile precisely because of their norm-breaking critiques of the monarchy. Anon Numpa and Rung had broken this norm, albeit at the cost of their liberties, by bringing generally private dialogues into the public sphere. Their aim, repeatedly reiterated by the speakers themselves as well as the protest organizers, is to reform, not to abolish, the monarchy. Their hope is to have a rational dialogue with royalists on the role of constitutional monarchy in the democratic regime and, more importantly, to prevent any inappropriate political intervention by the military disguised in the name of the monarchy.
Relying on the Emergency Decree, the police have issued many arrest warrants against the leaders of the protests, including Anon Numpa and Rung. As of the time of this writing, several of the so-called leaders of the protests have been arrested, released on bails, and arrested again over the protesting week. In an attempt to rein in the heat, Prayut Chan-Ocha lifted the Emergency Decree in Bangkok on October 22nd. In response, the protesters gave PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha 3 days to resign as the first step of compromise. The ceasefire is in place; yet the political heat seems to be as high as ever in the history of Thailand. Regardless of the result, they have, for better or for worse, uttered words that could not be unsaid in public, and consequently, the landscape of Thai politics has forever changed.
These photos were provided, courtesy of an associate of the author.