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- [Analysis] Is A Political Transition On The Horizon For Thailand? - January 21, 2021
- [Analysis] Oil Security in Northeast Asia: Sino-Russian Drillers vs ExxonMobil - November 11, 2020
The political turmoil happening in Thailand has accompanied the news for the whole of 2020. But what is happening in Thailand? Understanding the sociopolitical dynamics of the Thai nation is extremely complicated, as its history is characterized by intense and frequent political shocks that have left space for confusion and little opportunity for the growth of this country.
Thailand, a South Asian unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy, is one of the many remaining developing countries in the world where the military still holds great political power. Its “popular constitution”, also referred to as the “people’s constitution” was promulgated in 1997 and was considered a landmark for its democratic articles and the public participation involved in its drafting. This constitution, however, was later abrogated, and its successor was equally annulled due to the multiple coups that succeeded in the 2000s, undermining democracy and the rights of the Thai people.
A HISTORY OF POLITICAL UNCERTAINTY
Thailand’s volatile politics have continuously divided public opinion on domestic politics. As shown from the timeline to the side, the amount of attempted and successful coups that have occurred since 1910 have seriously challenge the peaceful transition of Thailand’s society and have created a loop of political dynamics which seems difficult to escape.
The rule of the royal family has certainly been a constant, more or less present throughout history, but always problematic when it comes to chances of democratization for Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, has reigned Thailand from 1946 to 2016 and was almost regarded as a religious divinity by the majority of its people. Thailand is one of the few countries in the world where lèse-majesté laws are strict and punish those who insult royalty severely. These have allegedly been used as special and very powerful weapons to silence dissent throughout the years.
As shown from the map, support for different political factions was becoming visible already in 2011, with a significant rise of Democrat supporters. That year, however, the Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra won the elections. Yingluck, however, was associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, her brother, and reportedly corrupted businessman. She campaigned promising poverty eradication, national unity, and tax reductions only to then fall into corruption just like her brother had done. Criticism sparked due to her self-interested means, which did not turn out to resemble any of the promises made during the election. In 2013, dissatisfaction escalated in nationwide protests and culminated in the May 2014 military coup.
It is clear that divisions were already running in the deepest roots of Thailand’s society and the harsh protests of 2013-2014 would have only led to greater escalations later in history. This means that the 2020 protests were predictable. However, what did not seem predictable is the intensity with which they are being carried out.
THAI YOUTH: FIGHTING FOR CHANGE
Images of the current protests in Thailand. Source: The Atlantic.
The rule of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who seized power in the 2014 coup, seems to have reached its final stage. Thai pro-democracy protests are now spreading across the country and are being led by the most significant group of Thailand’s society: the youth. Young Thai people have a key role in shaping the future of Thai politics and seem to be pushing hard for a change. More specifically, they are demanding amendments to the constitution, a new election, the end to the violence towards fellow activists fighting for the rights of Thai people, and the curbing of the royal family’s powers.
The pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP), led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was formed to represent these rights and had already gained extensive support in 2019. However, in February, a loan made by Thanathorn to FFP was deemed illegal and the party was forcedly dissolved, escalating protests. In an attempt to stop the protests and maintaining order, the Thai government has issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of large groups. Arguably, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has provided further justification to repress protests in the hope that negative sentiments spread among people would die down. While at the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic hit, protests did indeed decrease in numbers due to the socio-economic weakening of Thailand, protesters have recently come back stronger than ever. According to historian Thak Chaloemtiarana, this movement not only attracted university students but also younger students who feel the oppression and politicization of their education, suppressing individualism and praising the authoritarian government.
During the Autumn of 2020, these protests have intensified and, with them, arrests have become more common. According to Al Jazeera, only in October 2020, over 21 activists from the young movement were arrested. It is clear, therefore, these year-long protests are unlikely to stop as the youth is determined and certain about the demands made to the government. The three-finger salute shown on multiple photographs, has become the symbol of this movement. From the gallery of images published on The Atlantic and reported above, a particular photo shows Queen Suthida visibly worried gazing at protests from inside the royal motorcade.
Below, an interview with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, shows the willingness of the former Future Forward Party to remain an active part of lives of Thailand’s youth, maintaining its goals as a social movement, if not allowed as political party.
SOLVING THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE
The current political unrest in Thailand is said to have created a generational divide and have divided the population according to age groups. This has never been the case in previous conflicts and, currently, different ideas are creating clashes inside family contexts too.
“Most of them support this government, but young people have opposite ideas.”
A story of a law student reported by the BBC, entitled “My father is blinded by his love for the monarchy” explains the generational divide enlarged by politics. Possibly, the older Thai generations not only shared support for the monarchy but have also seen protests fail in the past. Older people in Thailand have lived through violence, coups, and sudden political changes which have never given greater voice to the Thai population itself but instead have maintained or even augmented the power of the military and royal family. Older Thais do not believe in the current protests and may have fear for the future of their children and grandchildren participating in this movement. But, if not them, who is ever going to fight for political changes in Thailand? Questioning the past is legitimate and will be a major driver of change for the current generation of protesters.
January 2021 Updates
- Human Rights Watch reports a worsening of the political crisis in Thailand, with large numbers of people being abducted, exiled, or imprisoned.
- A woman in her mid-60s has been charged to 43 years and 6 months of prison under accusations of having insulted or defamed the royal family, after serving over 40 years as a civil servant.
- Amid the new COVID-19 wave, forcing Thai people to stay home, protests have gone cyber. Activists are therefore using social media to continue to spread their message and inform the pro-democrats of their next steps.