The Fight for Thailand and the Universal Nature of Protests

As I sit and write this article, Thailand has entered a state of emergency following a ban on protests implemented on Thursday. Thailand has been in a state of unrest throughout my time living there from 2008 to 2015, and this is something I am particularly guilty of having become desensitised to, as the country experienced protests, unrest, and military crackdowns in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013/2014. This article is overdue and should have been written long ago – the trends of dissatisfaction in Thailand (as in so many other countries across the world) have long been brewing, and this should have been as important to me as the minute policy details we follow so closely in the UK. It is a privilege to have been able to grow up in such a beautiful country half way across the world then cut myself off to move back ‘home’ to the UK, but it is also one I have abused by not continuing to engage with and advocate about the political situation in Thailand. This article will not be a perfect explanation, and I will never be able to, and do not pretend to, fully understand the implications of a situation that remains complex and rooted in years of history and culture. With that in mind, here is a brief overview of the current situation in Thailand – hopefully it becomes clear to you it is something we should all be more attuned to.

The current protests in Thailand should not be seen as an isolated incident, but rather part of a historical trend of internal divergence between royalists professing love for the Thai institution and progressive liberalists. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, wherein an elected prime minister is head of government and the hereditary monarch is head of state. On the 22nd May 2014, Thailand experienced a coup d’etat which revoked the 2007 constitution, and allowed a military organisation called the National Council for Peace and Order to take over administration, assuming legislative responsibilities. This is not the first coup to have happened in Thailand – out of nineteen attempted coups, twelve have been successful. 

The roots of this coup grew out of divisions that were caused by the controversy surrounding former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Appointed prime minister in 2001 based on a populist platform, Thaksin was narrowly acquitted on charges of corruption based on concealed assets in the same year. He went on to sell his telecom company for 2 billion dollars in a tax free deal which resulted in mass protests. Facing calls for his resignation, he dissolved parliament and held elections which were boycotted by major opponents, meaning Thaksin continued to lead the country in an interim government lacking legitimacy. While abroad for a conference, the government was overthrown by the military who froze Thaksin’s assets, causing him to flee abroad in exile. Thaksin’s influence in Thailand remained divisive, with a pro-Thaksin party headed by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra winning the majority of parliamentary seats in August 2011. Following attempts to grant amnesty to a number of individuals, including her brother, Yingluck was ousted in 2014 in a military coup.

Thailand remained under military rule until elections were held on the 24th March 2019. It is worth noting that plenty of us at university remained ignorant of this whilst continuing to travel to enjoy the beaches and cheap party scenes Thailand offers, and hence, to some degree we remain complicit through our negligence in the silencing of democracy in Thailand. The elections that were held were widely deemed to be undemocratic and irregular by human rights watch groups, resulting in the election of Prayut Chan-o-cha who led the NCPO military government, and this remains the current government situation – much to the dissatisfaction of certain sects of Thai society.

Just before lockdown, the popular Future Forward opposition party was dissolved by the courts, leading to outbreaks of protests. After the lifting of Thailand’s COVID lockdown, these protests restarted with heightened momentum. Following the King’s decision to declare all crown wealth as his personal property instead of holding it in public trust (as well as assuming control of certain military functions), protestors began to tweet “#whydoweneedaking?”, a particularly inflammatory slogan given current defamation laws that prevent anyone from criticizing the monarchy. In attempts to curb growing unrest, the government banned protests from the 15th of October under an emergency decree. However, this has led to a rapid explosion in their scale, with latest estimates holding turnout at around 25,000 people. Because of this, live-streaming and posting selfies at pro-democracy protests has been made illegal and anti-monarchy channels have been shut down. Most worryingly, the emergency decree has given the government officials legal immunity and the power to arrest protestors to detain without access to legal counsel. 

These protests are being led primarily by the youth of Thailand, and they are the ones taking the brunt of violence from the police, with children as young as 15 being beaten by the riot police. Each day, the student leaders go out to lead the protests with the knowledge they could be arrested and imprisoned (with some already being given life sentences). Most of the student leaders who organised the protests have indeed since been arrested. Yet, the protests refuse to die down, with plans being drawn up for first and second line leaders. In shows of solidarity, colleges and schools across the country have held riots, defying the government’s ban on protests using the three-finger salute, derived from the Hunger Games, as a symbol of hope and unity for Thailand. The protestors in Thailand remain resilient as the police deploy violent and unjust tactics against the peaceful protests such as using water cannons, blue dye (to identify protestors for arrest up to a week later), batons, and riot shields on crowds. 

In the face of violent unrest, what has always struck me as particularly moving was the way people could come together in unity. I have cried seeing the motorbike taxis I used to take to bars band together in solidarity to honk their horns to let protestors know the police were coming. It is clear that these movements have captured the heart of Thailand, and I am not expecting us as a university community to care about every single global issue that comes our way – but as students our age stand imprisoned for life for speaking out against violations of their basic democratic lives, I do expect us to care and appreciate that in a different life, this could have been us. It is simply unfair that some of us are born into a life where we (hopefully) never have to take to the streets to fight for our right to democracy, whilst others face a harrowing choice as to whether to stay silent or go out and protest and risk getting arrested, throwing not only their lives, but their families into danger. I don’t want this article to be a form of virtue signalling. I don’t want my voice to take the spotlight on this issue. I want myself (and anyone reading this) to start listening and not jumping to promote the cause as a way of promoting ourselves. I want to take measured action and reflect, genuinely reflect, on what I can do to help call attention to the political situation in Thailand. Staying tuned to the situation, particularly by following local news sites like the Thai Enquirer, is only a start. Donating to protestors’ bail funds is going a step further. But by continuing to attempt to understand, discuss and advocate for global political issues, we can hopefully be part of a generation that cares about more than just politics that directly affects our own lives.

[Catherine Bouchard – she/her]

[Photo credit: Winston Turner]

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