Foreign Policy

Can Thailand’s Protest Motion Broaden Its Attraction?

After holding the largest mass demonstration in Thailand in several years on Sept. 19-20, on Thursday the student protesters moved to the country’s parliament to press home their demands for democratic reform.

Hours later, a deal between the sitting government—which is closely associated with the military, which ruled the country from 2014 to 2019—and opposition parties that might have slowed the marches fell apart. The two sides had agreed to move ahead with legislation that would allow Thailand’s 2017 constitution, which had been crafted by the military junta and is widely viewed as undemocratic, to be replaced by an entirely new charter. But something went wrong, and the deal came unstuck. Parliament kicked the issue down the road by calling for a month of further study, an important victory for the conservative establishment and especially for the unelected Senate that stands to be abolished under a revised constitution.

Until the deal fell apart, the existing administration, still led by retired generals closely associated with the 2014 coup, had appeared willing to listen to student calls for wide-ranging political reforms. Now, though, the prospects for a smooth political reform process are in more doubt than ever.

For years, Thailand has been extremely polarized, divided along regional and class lines as seen in the color-coded red versus yellow protest movements that have repeatedly emerged in Bangkok for the past 15 years. But now those existing political cleavages have been joined by a new one: a yawning generational chasm. Digital natives under 25, who have grown up accessing information online, are questioning the hierarchies that have long shaped Thailand’s conservative society. Meanwhile, many older people are alarmed by what they see as the disrespect from young protesters who are questioning seniority and tradition, instead of showing deference to the military and monarchy.

These divides came to the fore in February, when the Thai Constitutional Court dissolved the progressive Future Forward Party. Soon, protests by university and high school students broke out all over the country. Future Forward had embodied the hopes and dreams of younger voters, and its seemingly arbitrary banning was a bitter blow. The COVID-19 pandemic dampened public dissent for a while, but by mid-July the students were back with a vengeance.

The protesters’ demands are threefold: dissolution of the current parliament (which they believe was elected through a flawed and rigged process); extensive constitutional amendments (especially abolishing the unelected Senate and changing the election system); and an end to official harassment of government critics. More radical critics of the government are demanding that constitutional change go hand in hand with reform of the monarchy, a previously taboo topic in Thailand. With provocative, iconoclastic speeches, last weekend’s protesters pushed the royal envelope in ways that delighted their core supporters but alarmed many prospective allies.

Over the past two months, the students have tried to expand their support to other social groups, including people adversely affected by the pandemic, which has decimated the tourist industry and much of the service sector, and even to conservatives disillusioned by the lackluster performance of the military-dominated government and uneasy with the new reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who assumed the throne following the passing of his father in 2016. If they succeed, they could unify people across the old red-yellow divide.

In his speech to a crowd gathered in front of the Grand Palace on Saturday night, the student leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak acknowledged that the protest movement could only promote wholesale changes to Thailand’s state and society by bringing more than half of the country’s population on board. Yet while the past weekend’s protests were groundbreaking in their witty symbolism, bold agenda, and youthful ambition, they were less successful in building a broader range of alliances.

Preaching to the converted is the easy part: The protesters need above all to reach out those millions of Thais who may have supported previous military coups but who now recognize the importance of a more balanced and sustainable political system that respects differences and is not overshadowed by either the army or the palace. Those in the center might be won over by a more temperate protest movement that focused most of its criticism on the increasingly unpopular Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government’s inept handling of the current economic crisis.

Even if the current movement does reach new demographics, the odds are stacked against it: Previous rounds of protests have too often culminated in state violence or military coups. For now, the response from the government has been to kill the protests with legalistic kindness. Officials have tried to neutralize the protesters by shifting the agenda to familiar, circular debates about how to draft Thailand’s 21st constitution since 1932.

But Thursday’s parliamentary vote could mean that the soft approach has run its course. The authorities may sense that the students are proving unable to expand their movement, which means that the government may simply dig in and stall for time, hoping the protests eventually fizzle out.

The students already gained plenty of attention—now they need to win friends. Opening up political space is a good start. But in order to advance their goals, they next have to populate this space with Thais from other persuasions and generations, who agree that the vicious cycle of dysfunctional politics has to be ended. The students may have had a strong showing in the streets, but the establishment has used the second match in parliament to put the ball firmly back in its own court.

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