As Thailand’s youth movement for political change gathers momentum, it has already shown unprecedented trends and patterns. Moving forward, the conservative forces who oppose change and reform will likely train their sights on these young demonstrators to deny and derail them through manipulation and coercion. But this youth movement is unlikely to stop without a fight. These young men and women of high school and university age are here to stay for the long haul because their collective future, not just the ideology and ideals they espouse, is at stake.
When student-led flash mobs came together early this year prior to the coronavirus outbreak in Thailand, they made their presence felt quickly. The catalyst for their political activism from social media platforms, particularly Twitter, to the streets was the hasty dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP), which stood for a reform agenda. Although the military-inspired constitution of 2017 produced a skewered election in March 2019 that returned Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister, the young generation, including many first-time voters, at least had a voice in parliament through the FFP.
But pinning the rage of the young solely on FFP’s questionable dismantlement would be like saying the First World War was caused purely by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Naturally, there were other contributing factors to reach breaking point.
From 2005 when Thailand’s crisis and coup cycles began in earnest, younger demographics grew up watching colour-coded protests that became a drag on the country’s advancement. The young kept putting up until they got fed up. The FFP’s dissolution was just one of the final straws along with the forced disappearances of activists, routine rights violations, and, perhaps most of all, a lacklustre government headed by a career army general unfit to lead in the 21st century.
The enabling environment for student activism this time is profoundly different compared to the earlier and well-known student movement of the early 1970s.
First, the demise of communism 30 years ago robs conservative forces of their most convenient go-to pretext for suppression. The struggle against communism in the 1950s-80s empowered and expanded Thailand’s state apparatus, resulting in security agencies operational to this day, such as the Internal Security Operations Command. Treason laws and legal abuses against progressive young students in the early 1970s were rife in the face of communist expansionism from the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.
But the ideological basis of keeping the students down is now harder to come by. Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong recently alluded to student protesters as “nation haters” who need to be re-educated. Yet such a portrayal does not carry as much weight now as it did during the Cold War, In the recent past, Gen Apirat also tried to resurrect the ghost of communism but it went nowhere.
Second, information technology is on the side of Thailand’s youth movement more than the authorities. On 14 Oct 1973, when Bangkok-based university students succeeded in booting out the then-military dictators from power, their colleagues in Chiang Mai had to wait until the morning to travel to the town centre and place a long-distance call to the capital to discover what had happened.
This time, students’ street protests have also involved symbols, such as Japanese cartoon “hamtaro” and “Harry Potter” characters that have been critical of regime personalities in subtle, elliptical ways. Using these symbols also draws a contrast between the young generation and the much older, predominantly male power holders. Twitter hashtags have been deployed to draw attention to issues of injustice and abuse of power and privilege, empowering messages of dissent.
Third, Thailand has never seen such broad-based and nationwide student protests. Bangkok is the usual venue when it comes to anti-government demonstrations, sometimes joined by like-minded peers in major provinces, such as Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen. But this time, second- and third-tier provinces, from Ratchaburi and Samut Prakan to Roi Et and Phetchabun, have been protest grounds. Again, social media tools have enabled students to coordinate and collaborate in ways unseen in the past.
Fourth, protesters are not just university-based but include high-school teenagers who have never voted. In the 1970s, rank-and-file students were from universities and vocational schools. But this time, young students from prominent high schools, such as Triam Udom Suksa in Bangkok, have been having their say. These youngsters, galvanised by issues and debates on Twitter and other social media channels, see common cause with their university elders. All of them have the most to lose if Thailand has no future.
Fifth, new leaders among the young are coming to the fore. A number of usual names have been covered regularly in the vernacular media. But if observers listen to different protest sites and speeches on YouTube, they will see fiery and articulate young speakers whose names and faces have not been known before. Unsurprisingly, such an organic movement with a genuine cause is bound to produce a new crop of leaders.
Finally, when Covid-19 was rampant and posed a grave threat in March-May, with lockdowns and severe restrictions on movement, it was thought the student movement would lose momentum and possibly fizzle out. Instead of being afraid of the virus, young protesters have returned to street demonstrations as soon as pandemic restrictions were eased in spite of the continuation of the emergency decree. Should there be a second-wave outbreak with more lockdowns, it is likely that this youth movement will keep coming back as soon as health concerns dissipate.
The road is long and daunting for these young voices who want a better Thailand. The authorities surely must be scheming to tame, contain and suppress them. While the youth movement demands a parliamentary dissolution, cessation of official intimidation, and constitutional reforms, it has not enunciated what Thailand of the future should look like. Nor has the movement broadened to include other segments of Thai society that are of older age groups, such as wage earners, farmers, and even the middle class.
Thailand’s young generation know what they do not want — ie everything Gen Prayut, his coup-making cohorts and military-backed regime stand for — but they need to work on what it is exactly that they want. Yet if the Prayut government, the Thai military, or others think this youth movement lacks sufficient will and traction, they are likely to be gravely mistaken.