Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 179, 22 October 2020

Thailand: Emergency is withdrawn, as the protests remain youth-led, yet leaderless
Lokendra Sharma

In the news
On 21 October, Prayut Chan-ocha, the Prime Minister of Thailand announced his intention to de-escalate the situation and has mentioned that he is "preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok." He has also said that he would do so "if there are no violent incidents." On 22 October, he did withdraw the emergency decree.

Earlier, on 20 October, the cabinet approved a special Parliamentary session to discuss the ongoing street protests in Thailand. This comes a few days after an emergency was declared in Bangkok on 15 October and a warning on imposing night curfews. 

Issues at large
First, the withdrawal of emergency - whether it is too little and too later. While the Prime Minister has announced the withdrawal of emergency, one is not sure how the protestors are likely to respond, given the nature of protests and the protestors.

Second, the demography of the protestors. Although the protests have seen participation from a cross-section of Thai society, they are primarily led by the youth. Most of the leaders are in their twenties. Protests have also seen significant participation by women, who have brought the issues of patriarchy in Thai society and institutions to the limelight. High school students have also participated in large numbers through their 'Bad Student' collective movement. The involvement of the young population have particularly shattered the taboos in Thailand, for example the public criticism of the monarchy.

Third, the leaderless nature of the protests. The protests in Thailand, like most of the contemporary youth protests from Hong Kong to New Delhi, are largely leaderless. The arrests of several prominent protest leaders by the State have not slowed the momentum. In the absence of centralized leadership, the protests have been diffused and dynamic with protest sites being communicated just before the gathering. This creates spontaneity and has precluded any effective police response.

Fourth, drawing lessons from other protests. The young protesters appear to have learned tactics from their Hong Kong counterparts, for example, the wide-scale use of social media platforms like Telegram for organization and managing logistics, use of gas masks and goggles and sign language to communicate. They have also relied heavily on symbolism and have used a three-finger salute inspired by the movie 'Hunger Games' to convey their discontent and dissent. 

However, too much should not be read into the Hong Kong angle. Youth-led protest movements have generally exhibited these characteristics, and it might be a larger trend reflective of the increasing adoption of technology by youth worldwide. 

In perspective
The protest movement so far has been diffused and leaderless. While this is a strength as it makes clamping down difficult, it also entails a potential weakness that the State might exploit — lack of coherent strategy. The absence of a leader would be problematic, if the State is to extend an olive branch for talks or negotiations. The State can also exploit any divisions/differences in the protestors' camp.

Protestors should derive not only their tactics but also learn some lessons from Hong Kong's un-successful protest movement. To bring about a decisive change, the protests have to be quick and intensive; the State has more capacity to wear down the protestors and respond as and when it chooses. There is a real risk of Thailand protests fizzling out if they are stretched too long without any meaningful concession from the State.

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