A youth-led protests movement across Thailand has called for social change in the country
The movement calls for a monarchy reform, the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and an end to the discrimination of peaceful government critics.
From the coup on 22 May 2014 to the Thai general elections held on 24 March 2019, Thai people were forced to live under the control of a military junta: the National Council for Peace and Order. An unprecedented wave of protests that call for democratic reforms and defying the political opposition’s growing repression has swept across the country.
They were initially triggered by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in February 2020 and continued through the year with three precise demands presented to the government: the dissolution of parliament, an ending to the intimidation of people, and a reform of the military-backed constitution.
“Let it end with our generation” is one of the protesters’ slogans that high school and university students use to address their will to bring an end to the cycle of coups that has dominated Thailand’s political history. Bheemapos Seemawut, a political science student in Bangkok, has attended most of the major demonstrations held by the student-organised movement FreeYouth and United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD).
“I would describe the atmosphere as energetic. Most of the protesters are young and are more than eager to help each other,” he says, “they believe they are part of a movement that will bring change. We are protesting for many different issues that go from parliament and education reforms to gender inequality.”
Ben Khamhaeng has organised and attended numerous demonstrations on behalf of his organisation, Thai New Yorkers for Democracy. “The older population were raised in a way to not question the government nor the royal family. Due to this, they have learned to accept corruption and do nothing about it,” he explains. “However,” he adds, “at this point, we, the youngsters, feel like there is nothing else to lose. We are willing to risk everything in order to attain a better future for Thailand and the generations to come.”
When asked about PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, Khamhaeng expresses anger and dissatisfaction. “Prayut authorises violence against peaceful demonstrations and disregards people’s rights to fundamental human rights, freedoms, and democracy,” he says. “He uses lese majeste laws for the government’s advantage to arrest and charge anyone who goes up against the monarchy.”
Response to Civil Resistance
Thai authorities have responded by intensifying their crackdown. The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are increasingly under attack. Tanik Prasopsorn, a consultant and photographer involved in the demonstrations, expresses his view: “The consensus among people I know (NGOs, press, people involved in politics) is that the government will try to force protestors to act aggressively so that they can justify any violence committed by their part, which I believe could be the basis for another coup.” He thinks there are “strategic missteps on the protestors’ side” since he has witnessed some red shirts protestors promoting violence.
There have also been counter-protests that show loyalty to the monarchy and whose participants generally oppose reform calls. “It is hard to determine the general public’s feelings currently. The polarisation between royalists and the protestors wanting the parliament to step down is extreme,” an anonymous student says. “Propagandas are becoming very hard to distinguish from reality. Civil workers are employed to march parades to support the monarchy.”
Critics of the Monarchy
Some have also called for reforms to the country’s powerful and wealthy monarchy. They say is too close to the military and accuse them of interfering in politics. King Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne following his father’s death, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since strengthened his authority, bringing the wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control.
“The current king is the richest king in the world,” Khamhaeng complains, “he was and still is involved in numerous cases of drug smuggling on a large scale. He also enjoyed a luxurious life in Germany for most of his life while his people suffered, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Bheemapos Seemawut refers to the disagreement about the royalty in his own family. “My mother does not believe that the monarchy is one of the root causes of Thai political problems, while I believe it is.”
Founded in 2018, Rap Against Dictatorship is an activist rap group. They discuss social problems in Thai society through their music and they have a robust anti-dictatorship ideology. They think that a real change is needed. One of the members addresses the generational conflict:
“Times are changing rapidly. The older generation cannot keep up with how fast information. News travel while we are getting an overwhelming amount of it. There’s a clash between the information that different parts of the society receive.”
The band believes this year’s protests have called for the most definite principles and concrete demands Thailand has ever witnessed. A group member says: “Sooner or later our demands will be heard, time is on our side.”