Despite the eroding track record of so-called democracies across the globe, many nations are experiencing increased support for pro-democracy movements. Such is the case in Thailand, where a predominantly youthful, democratic movement is gaining momentum within civil society after years of oppressive military rule.
The foundations of the movement can be traced back to the rise of military General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the controversial elections held in March of last year – the first elections since the 2014 coup. In 2014, military forces led by Chan-ocha overthrew the violence-promoting establishment in attempts to run the country more smoothly, restore order, and enact political reforms. Following the coup, Chan-ocha drafted an interim constitution which granted his military government unaccountable power while restricting civil liberties, the media, and dissent. The government has strictly enforced Thailand’s lese-majeste law which states that “anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent will be punished with a jail term between three and 15 years”. Such actions are seen by both domestic and international audiences as infringements upon free speech and have heightened tensions between the power-hungry government and the democratically-minded citizenry. Thus, Thai citizens saw the holding of elections last year as a promising opportunity for change after several years of military rule. Chan-ocha, however, was re-installed as prime minister and has since remained in power.
In February of this year, the pro-democratic Future Forward Party (FFP) which won the third largest share of seats in 2019 and was popular with many young and first-time voters, was ordered to dissolve after a court ruled that the party received an illegal loan. In response, thousands of protesters took to the streets, bolstering the movement into what it is today. Peaceful demonstrations continue to defy the government’s orders against large gatherings and numerous protest leaders have been arrested for defamation of the monarchy highlighted in the lese majeste laws.
So, what exactly are Thai citizens demonstrating for? In sum, protesters are calling for the resignation of Chon-ocha to allow for new (and fair) elections, for democratic amendments to the constitution to put an end to systematic harassment, and for reforms to overhaul the current government and make it more accountable.
The government’s response thus far resides in efforts to quell protests by banning large gatherings in accordance with COVID-19 protocol, undertaking legal battles with protest leaders in terms of lese majeste laws, and permitting the police to use tear gas and water cannons to disband protesters outside the house of Parliament. Further action by Chon-ocha and his government will likely be reactionary to the trends of the protests as his government fails to make serious promises of political reform in accordance with the movement’s demands. Recent rumors of another military coup to extinguish the protests have increased the fervor of the movement even more. The threat of violence is looming large over the young, vulnerable protesters, yet still they hold fast to their three core demands.
One of the most striking features of the ongoing unrest in Thailand is the overwhelming involvement of young adults. The movement is said to be primarily student-led, reflecting the generational gap between those in power and those entering the political scene. Those who chose to participate in the protests are putting themselves at extreme risk by illegally dissenting with the government – all for a cause they deem worthy of the repercussions: democracy.
It is also worth noting that these youth are not seeking to come into power themselves, but to change the rules of the game for the future of the country. As one young protester named Ang-Ang, 16, said, “Our voice must be the voice that matters, as well. We are the voice of the future generation of Thailand”.
Similar, student-led, pro-democracy protests in the region, like those in Hong Kong throughout 2019, prove the resilience of younger generations in the face of adversity. Both movements created their own means of coordination and communication, making it difficult for the administration to contain their activities. “Flash mobs”, white ribbons, and the rebellious three-finger salute (yes, the one from the Hunger Games) specifically characterize the Thai resistance, with social media playing a crucial role.
The prevalence of these movements suggest that democracy is still seen as a favorable alternative to authoritarian tactics. Such tactics work to erode citizens’ trust in the ability of the government to adhere to their preferences. Therefore, questions regarding the absence or presence of political efficacy are being superseded by the question: at what point will citizens become so dissatisfied with government action and policy that they respond with mass protests demanding change?