Thailand’s Democracy Protests - A Run Through
What started as a call for democratic change has turned into a nationwide cry for constitutional reform. Demands to abolish the current government have persisted throughout the pandemic, despite the numerous dangers confronting activists and varying public opinions on the methods used by protesters. Attempts to silence protesters have simply made the calls harder to ignore. For Thailand, a country that has long had an affinity for authority, these protests are looking to create a new future for youth.
How has it come to this?
Protesters have spent months holding demonstrations against the current government, led by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, after calling into question the legitimacy of his rule. They believe that Chan-o-cha’s coming into power, which was the result of a 2014 military coup, is a symbol of tightening military rule in the country. Strikingly, however, this desire to see change has reached beyond the Prime Minister; activists have regularly called for the monarchy to be held accountable for their actions, which is daring in a country with such strict lèse-majesté laws.
There is a serious risk when it comes to making open critiques regarding Thai politics. Fears of the Thai government’s response to protests have been validated by high-profile abductions of political satirists and the government's refusal to acknowledge their disappearance, and cases where dissidents have seen extended periods of jail time. However, even with the possibility of serious punishment, protesters are continuing to demand constitutional reform that would take power away from the monarchy, liberalise the country and see the resignation of their current Prime Minister.
Despite making progress, legislators are still not completely bowing to the demands of protesters. A proposal to change the charter that directly challenged the monarchy’s power was rejected even with the support of the public. This stagnation has only heightened tensions, with protesters using paint and water pistols and Thai authorities retaliating with live ammunition and water cannons to keep them under control.
A struggle from the ground up
Much like the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the Thai pro-democracy movement is
predominantly made up of students looking to improve their future. Figureheads include Panasuya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul (the spokesperson of the Student Union of Thailand), political activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and human rights lawyer Anon Nampa. All three have found themselves in the sights of authorities, and all three have been charged with numerous offences for their contribution to the movement.
Akin to the symbolism of yellow umbrellas, Thai protesters have used everything from rubber ducks to inflatable dinosaurs to protect themselves, make tongue-in-cheek jokes, and highlight the disconnect between youth and the current government. Most iconic is their use of the three-fingered salute, taken from popular film franchise The Hunger Games, which protesters use to show their discontent with the establishment and solidarity with one another.
Previous divisions, whilst being politically charged, were both dominated by adults and did not question the role of the monarchy in Thai society. Instead of the conflict between Reds vs Yellows, which involved citizens of all ages, this conflict is the culmination of frustrated youth seeing no future in their current government.
Allies abroad and beyond
The ongoing struggle in Thailand has won the admiration of like minded activists across the globe. Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who spearheaded the Umbrella Movement as well as political party Demosisto, has openly shown his support for Thai protesters and even pushed Hong Kongers to declare their allegiance with their counterparts. They have also found loyal supporters in Taiwanese youth, who can relate to struggles against authoritarianism. Allies from all three countries have branded themselves the “Milk-Tea Alliance”, a call to the shared popularity of bubble tea among youth, and regularly utilise social media to show signs of support to one another.
However, with Wong recently pleading guilty to unlawful assembly, the strength of Hong Kong’s democracy movement has continued to take serious blows. With serious reform a very real possibility and sacrifices already being made, Thai protesters will no doubt keep this in mind as they continue demonstrating, determined to succeed.
Noah Diamantopoulos is a Master of International Relations student at The University of Melbourne, with a keen focus on affairs in the Asia-Pacific region.