Eye On Asia: Thailand's Protests

Calling for a prime minister to resign, drafting a new constitution, reforming the monarchy, the pro-democracy movements led by young Thais vow to fight for their own future.

Bangkok-based researcher Purawich Watanasukh has the latest from the Thai capital.

Over the past three months, Thailand has experienced the largest demonstrations since the most recent military coup in 2014. The latest protests were mostly led by university and high school students across the country, keen to show their solidarity against the junta-transformed government after the controversial Thai general election in March 2019.

This is not the first time protests against the ruling government have disrupted the capital. Early this year, following a dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party by the Constitutional Court, a ‘flash mob’ appeared in a number of schools and universities nationwide. However, the Covid pandemic then temporarily halted a growing political movement.

After business in Thailand gradually returned to normal in July, a new round of protests has began with three strong demands: the resignation of the prime minister, rewriting the constitution, and reforming the monarchy.


Water cannon being used against protestors. Bangkok October 2020 / photo The Standard

To understand this movement, you must understand Thailand’s political context first.

In May 2014 the military junta, dubbed the “National Council for Peace and Order” staged a political coup in Thailand.

The junta leader, Prayut Chan O-cha, who was also an army chief at that time, was named a prime minister.

The junta appointed a commission to draft a new constitution, which was then approved in a referendum in 2016 and officially promulgated in 2017.

Due to growing domestic and international pressure, a new election was finally held in March 2019, which controversially ended with the junta-aligned Phalang Pracharat Party forming a new coalition, and Prayut retaining his premiership.

Prayut is widely seen by protesters as ‘illegitimate’ leader who did not win an election, but gains his support from the 250 senators who were appointed by the junta for 5 years.

In addition, Prayut’s leadership has been plagued by claims of incompetence  in the face of an economic recession, and the Covid pandemic.


Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha / photo supplied

For the protesters,and for many other Thais, six years of his premiership is more than enough.

Ousting Prayut from office would be the first step to political change.

The second key demand from protestors concerns the 2017 Constitution, which the protesters view as unjust.

It contains many undemocratic provisions, including a power of the junta-appointed Senate to vote for the prime minister for 5 years, and allowing an  unelected prime minister to run the government.

Any proposed amendments must receive at least one-third of the senators’ vote, the same senators who were appointed by the junta.

A new constitution means a new ‘social contract’ in Thailand, and protestors see it as key to making the country a better and fairer place to live. 

The third demand is, in many ways the most sensitive :  to reform the monarchy to be truly transparent, and accountable.

The monarchy has been a taboo subject in Thailand for many decades due to a ‘lese majeste’ law, that prevents individuals from insulting the king, the queen, and the heir apparent to the throne, with a punishment up to 15 years in jail.

The protesters’ demand the monarchy be reformed to create a truly ‘constitutional monarchy’, placing the King above politics.

Earlier this week , one protest targetted the German Embassy in Bangkok, in an attempt to highlight the fact Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany.

On the streets, the student-led protest movement engages with a huge number of Thais.  The movement is non-violent and uses a ‘leaderless’ approach,  meaning  everyone is a leader, and if core protest leaders are arrested by the police, the movement simply continues with new leaders. 

Social media is also vital. Protesters have created hashtags on Twitter to communicate with the public and set the agenda.

Hashtags include : #ให้มันจบที่รุ่นเรา (Let it end in our generation), #ถ้าการเมืองดี (if politics is good) #ถ้าไม่สู้ก็อยู่อย่างทาส (If not fight, then be a slave).

These hashtags have been seen by millions, encouraging mass mobilization and a growing political aspiration across Thailand. 

For its part,  the government has signaled it will not tolerate any opposition and stands ready to take ‘tough’ measures if necessary.

However, measures attempting to crack down on the protest movement have largely backfired, and when authorities used chemical- laced water cannons against protestors earlier this month there was condemnation both at home and abroad.

The Thai Parliament has met in special session earlier this week in a largely fruitless attempt to find solutions to the current crisis.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister has again confirmed he won't be resigning , and there's been a surge of support on the streets from Thai's who still revere their royal family and the monarchy. 

Right now, Bangkok feels in the middle of a stand-off, with next steps from both sides far from clear.   


Protests in Bangkok are the biggest seen in years/ photo supplied

What I observe in this movement is a new generation of young Thais.

Most of the protesters are the university and high students who truly believe that they are fighting to make Thailand a better place for their generation.

They've grown up witnessing at least two military coups - in 2006 and 2014 - neither of which took the country anywhere.

Their demands are simple: return a normalcy and democracy to the country, and let them decide their own future. 


A protest placard reads " Nation, Religion, Ariana Grande" , a satirical take on Thailand's national ideology ( Nation, Religion, Monarchy ) photo Purawich Watanasukh

It's currently hard to say if this movement will be successful. It is still a long run.

I believe that ‘a wind of change’ has blown in Thailand.

It might not end like #ให้มันจบที่รุ่นเรา (let it end in our generation) as many young Thai people might want. 

But things have begun to change , and Thailand will never be the same.


 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author

- Asia Media Centre