By highlighting societies’ worst flaws and battering economies, the coronavirus pandemic has fueled protests across the globe. In Thailand, that’s been compounded by discontent with continued rule by the former head of the military junta and harassment of government critics. The result is the largest pro-democracy rally since a coup in 2014, spearheaded by a growing student-led movement that has strayed into the country’s taboo subject – its monarchy.
Adequately tackling their grievances, especially in the depths of a recession, requires flexibility and imagination. Thailand’s leaders have shown proof of neither. Protesters will need much broader support to push the government beyond constitutional tinkering, and into real concessions. The prospect of a slow economic recovery may sharpen minds.
Never far from the surface, discontent has simmered since a disputed election last year, which the opposition says was managed to ensure former junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha stayed at the helm as prime minister. Upstart party Future Forward, including some of the government’s most vocal critics, was later banned. Making matters worse, Covid-19 has badly squeezed a $500 billion-plus economy that relies heavily on tourism and manufacturing exports. Incidents like the decision to drop a hit-and-run case against the heir to the Red Bull fortune have fueled concerns about flaws in the justice system.
In recent weeks, demonstrations on university campuses have grown and spread to high schools, where students are raising the three-finger salute inspired by the “Hunger Games” series, a symbol of resistance. Sunday’s gathering alone brought out more than 10,000 protesters in Bangkok. Online dissenters are far more numerous.
The government has arrested some protest organizers but is otherwise proving restrained. That’s promising, given the country’s grim track record when it comes to suppressing dissent. Thammasat University, one of the gathering points, saw a violent crackdown in 1976, when students were shot and beaten to death in an incident that ushered in one of Thailand’s frequent spells of military rule. The current softer approach, though, doesn’t mean that national leaders will yield, or that violence isn’t still possible.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how the two sides can compromise. Prayuth has little incentive to concede much. There is no question that in a country where genuine grassroots protests are rare — even mass demonstrations are more commonly driven by political leaders — the persistent crowds are unsettling. But this is not yet a movement overrunning the streets. More importantly, it’s also not a Belarus-style national movement: Thailand’s inequitable society remains deeply polarized. Conservatives, the ruling party, the military and tycoons remain loyal to the status quo.
The protesters demand the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution and the protection of human rights. Some also want to impose limits on the monarchy, a fraught issue that risks confrontation with lese majeste laws that can land offenders with long prison terms. The requests include making the institution accountable, removing the king from politics, and overseeing his spending. That’s a gamble and will be near-impossible. King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been assertive since ascending the throne in 2016. Even raising this forbidden issue, though, has made it easier for pro-establishment voices to dismiss the entire movement as wild-eyed radicals.
Prayuth is playing for time, promising talks and potential changes to the constitution. The prospect of tackling the real problems for democracy in the current charter, such as the military-appointed senate, is distant. As commentator Ken Lohatepanont points out, dabbling with the provisions governing constitutional alterations is no guarantee of actual change, and has the added benefit of making it impossible to dissolve parliament.
Two things bear watching. One is the unknown long-term effect of the current economic predicament. Thailand’s reliance on visitors and exports means second-quarter gross domestic product shrank just over 12% from a year earlier — the worst decline since the Asian financial crisis in 1998, and enough to cause widespread pain. That may keep Thais at home, wary of rocking the boat, or push them onto the streets. The bigger question is what this will do for the country’s tycoons, who currently have no incentive to peel away from Prayuth and the system. If protests continue, adding to other drags on consumption and international investor interest, they could begin to apply a little pressure.
The second, says Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, is that while short-term change is hard to envisage, the movement has begun to open up the discussion on topics long closed to Thai society. That’s most obviously the monarchy, but also lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, abortion, the rights of students in a patriarchal education system that imposes strict rules even on hairstyles, and more.
It’s not a revolution, but it could be a start. –Bloomberg
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