Conflict Alerts # 145, 19 August 2020
In the news
On 16 August, approximately 10,000 protestors came together for an anti-government rally in Bangkok demanding political reforms. This was the most massive demonstration, since 2014. The 'Sunday protest,' as it has been referred to, was staged in front of the Democratic monument, similar to the 'Free youth' rally held on 18 July.
Earlier, on 14 August, the Human Rights Watch has demanded the release of Parit Chiwarak, the student's rights activist from the Thammasat University, along with other prominent activists such as Arnon Nampha and Panupong Jadnok.
The protests in front of the democratic monumnet is symbolic of the protestors' demand for reforms relating to the constitution and the monarchy.
Issues at large
The first issue is the return of the protests in Thailand. It started in February following the disbanding of the Future Forward Party (FFP), the opposition. In July, after months of silence due to the pandemic, there was a second wave of protests erupted again. Several students and political activists have been arrested, and some have been reported to have disappeared.
The second issue is the nature and strength of the current protest vis-a-vis the earlier ones in Thailand. Political protests have been common during 1973, 1976, 1992, and 2010; there have been periodic demonstrations and clashes between the red and yellow shirts since the late 1990s. Unlike these earlier protests, the present one is led by the educated youths, belonging to the upper-middle-class families from urban areas. Distinct from the red shirts (farmers from the rural areas) and yellow shirts (monarchy loyalists), these protestors are not defined by any political affiliations.
The third issue is the causes of protests in Thailand - disbanding of a political party, suppression of rights and freedom of expression, and the nature of the governance. However, the trigger for this protest is different. The crumbling economy, rising unemployment, economic disparity between the rule and the ruled, corruption in the system form the core of this protest. The above persisting problems were further aggravated by the pandemic. It has led to the worst economic crisis since the 1997 Asian financial crash. This would have a repercussion on the job market and the future of the 500,000 students who will be graduating in 2020. This could explain the larger role of university students in the protest.
The final issue is the shift in popular perceptions against the monarchy as an institution. There is apathy towards the newly crowned King Maha Vajralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkorn. Many question his lifestyle, the use of fear to consolidate his power (that includes bringing the royal assets and Bangkok based unit of the Thai Army under his control) and his long absence from Thailand have agitated the people. This has also made the current protests against the monarchy and demand its reformation.
There is a growing fear of strong State response, like the one against the student's protest in 1976. However, this is unlikely to hamper the spirit, given the number of youths in the streets of Bangkok. The government has to realize that the use of force to suppress the agitation will provide further momentum to the protest, and instigate others to join.
The protests that have started in Bangkok has already spread to 44 other provinces. However, the government and its supporters behind it, seem not to understand the larger repercussion. If it relies on the use of force rather than addressing the causes, it would only exacerbate, and provide fuel to more protests in the future.