WHY THAI PROTESTERS NEED TO RECOMMIT TO NONVIOLENT ACTION: IN CONVERSATION WITH MARK S. COGAN
Thailand’s election was the source of significant attention last year after a rigged process blocked the winner, the Move Forward Party, from claiming their victory. In the aftermath, it was widely reported as another major loss for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation and a symbol of wider trends taking place in the region. However, what it also exposed was the wayward direction of strategic nonviolence in the nation and the need for the movement to recommit to its principles.
In August last year, I had the pleasure of speaking to Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka. Mark has studied the role and history of strategic nonviolence globally, and provided key insights into the movement in Thailand. His work highlights the impact strategic nonviolence can have as well as the importance of committing to the movement’s principles. In our conversation, Mark detailed why it is vital for Thai protesters to recommit to the principles of nonviolence.
What is the history of strategic nonviolence?
Mark’s work builds on the theories of nonviolent action first proposed by Gene Sharp, the so-called “Macchiavelli of nonviolence”. What is important to note about the movement, is its distinct difference from theories of pacifism. Strategic nonviolence is not simply anti-violence but rather the strategic use of peaceful protest. By undertaking peaceful action against oppressors, wider audiences slowly increase their support for the protesters. Accordingly, it becomes increasingly difficult for the oppressor to maintain power. This is based on the notion of legitimate power, the most sustainable form of power that is wielded only through the consent of a population.
Mark’s article; Consent, Repression, and Emerging Student Activism in Northeastern Thailand co-written with Siwach Sripokangul, Chanaboon Intharaphan and Autthapon Muangming, provides an excellent summary of strategic nonviolence in the nation, and touches on themes of ‘demonology’ (which Mark has theorised in further work). The movement first began in the late 60s when the National Student Centre of Thailand (NSCT) was established. At this time, as Mark puts it, “they weren’t a political organisation as such, they were trying to lobby and advocate for a better higher education and better learning environment.” Slowly however, the group’s success led them to begin protesting political and economic issues. Their first notable protest was the anti-Japanese Goods week in 1972, which advocated for better pay and conditions for Thai citizens working for Japanese companies.
Eventually, this evolved to protests against Prime Minister Thanom Kittachorn’s “staunch anticommunism”. It was here that the strategic nonviolence movement became a threat to Kittachorn’s position. Kittachorn embarked on a campaign to “demonise” the movement, labelling them as communist deviants in a context where anti-communism was rife throughout Thailand. The Prime Minister dehumanised the supporters of the movement and carried out violent crackdowns. Mark notes that this process of demonising and dehumanising of populations has occurred in far larger cases such as the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. Of course, on a very different scale.
In the 50 years since the onset of strategic nonviolence in Thailand, the nation has endured several cycles of violence and military coups. Nonetheless, the movement has remained resilient throughout. What is concerning however, which Mark has highlighted following the 2023 Thai election, is the slightly different direction the movement has taken in recent years.
What has been different about strategic nonviolence in Thailand in the past three years?
“I think the protests are different and the government tactics are somewhat different,” said Cogan referring to the events in Thailand. To give context, Cogan explained “the earlier protest movements pre 2009… were largely organic. They were traditional protests. For a large part, there wasn’t a whole lot of government response. They sort of let it be.” However, following the 2014 military coup, this slowly changed. Protests evolved from “pro-democracy” to “pro-reform” which “sparked concern among Thai conservatives and royalists”. During the pandemic, the government used martial law to prevent mobilisation against the government. They also increasingly charged protest leaders under lese-majeste law, which prohibits Thai citizens from speaking out against the country’s monarchy.
In other words, the government took the traditional strategy, the “dictator strategy” as described by Cogan. The idea being “the more you crack down, the more social and political consequences there are for your opposition, the less likely they are to mobilise”. The problem was, there were multiple leaders willing to go to jail to advocate for their cause. In doing so, they inspired many more to join the movement.
“But, there’s a big problem with the way the protests, in my opinion, have continued”, Cogan added. “Thailand’s protests don’t really have leadership… they’re organised by a number of different groups, there’s not one leadership group… in fact, there’s a new trend in protests called leaderless protests.”
They have also become more violent. In 2020, protesters graffitied the police headquarters and in 2021 another group responded to police tear gas and water cannons with their own homemade bombs and firecrackers. The same year a group known as Thalugas, set fire to traffic lights and aimed fireworks at police, demanding for then-PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s resignation. However, this change of tactics may just undermine the very goal of these groups.
Why are leaderless movements an issue?
Cogan referenced the 2019 protests in Hong Kong which “were largely leaderless, there were public faces to the protests, from Joshua Wong and Nathan Law and a few other activists but what bound them together was not leadership, but a sense of nationalism, a sense of patriotic duty, or this unity in terms of a national or political identity. That’s a problem when the protests don’t go your way, when you are faced with political resistance by the government and people or groups that support the government, and people or groups that support the government. In the Hong Kong case, some of the protesters started to legitimise violence against the police and against businesses that were loyal or supportive of Beijing. There was graffiti, there was a couple of cases of arson and there were cases where protesters in Hong Kong started to face off against police throwing various objects of non lethal quality at police. When you do that, there are consequences because violence begets violence. It legitimises violence on the part of the state so they become more and more explosive, so to speak.”
“When you resort to arson, when you resort to graffiti or you engage with the police, it’s very easy for people who support the government to say ‘see, they are a bit of a harm, maybe it’s okay to use that kind of non lethal force’."
“Protests, and studies show this, are much more effective when there are leaders, and when there is a nonviolent approach to them. This comes with years and years of trial and error. You can trace this back to the Gandhian or the MLK movements. But it starts with very successful cases in Greensboro, North Carolina where African American students were motivated to overturn the segregationist policy of barring black students from eating at lunch counters. So they targeted the department store lunch counter in that city, and through discipline, they were resolute that they would not respond to being yelled at and smacked. And when the police came, and they were asked to leave, they left. They did not engage with the police. But they came back the next day and word spread. Everyone was trained to respond exactly the same way; do not engage, do not legitimise violence.”
“That was beamed into the home of millions of Americans right through their media, through television, and people realised they’re not troublemakers. They exposed the injustice of segregation in America. There were lunch counter protests all across the eastern seaboard of the United States and the policy was changed. That was the start of a more explosive civil rights movement.”
With the dawn of the New Year, time can only tell what route protesters will take.
Abby Wellington is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Journalism and Arts (Economics and International Relations) at the University of Queensland. She first joined YDS in 2020 before becoming the Southeast Asia Correspondent in 2023. Her interests include global security studies and international political economy. Abby has previously volunteered as a newsroom assistant at a community radio and participated in the Young Diplomat’s (Hague, Netherlands) 2024 Winter Seminar. She also attended the Lowy Institute’s 2023 Lecture. As internal VP, Abby will manage strategy and operations at the organisation to ensure all members enjoy their experience volunteering with YDS!