Thailand Protests Point towards Impending Generational Change

9 September 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Widespread protests have taken place across Thailand in the past month, with the latest in Bangkok on 5 September, in which hundreds of students protested outside the Education Ministry offices demanding educational reforms. The vast majority of the protests have called for widespread democratic reforms, directly targeting both the prime minister and the king. In response to the protests, authorities have arrested a number of pro-democracy leaders and activists.

Comment

Anti-government protests are not a rare sight in Thailand, with thousands having gathered in both January and December last year. What makes the latest protests significant, however, is the fact that the monarchy has also been targeted. For decades, the monarchy has been deemed as untouchable. According to Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, in what is commonly referred to as the lèse-majesté law, ‘Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.’ Despite that potentially all-encompassing legislation, on 10 August, students at Thammasat University made ten demands that directly targeted the monarch, including: the revocation of the king’s immunity against lawsuits; the revocation of the lèse-majesté law; reducing the budget allocated to the monarchy; the cessation of propaganda supporting the monarchy; investigation of the deaths of those who criticised or had links with the monarchy; and the king not to endorse any further coups d’état. The nature of those demands has led many commentators to describe the protests as having entered unprecedented territory.

Another factor which makes these latest protests significant is the fact that they have successfully mobilised a younger generation. According to political commentators at East Asia Forum, ‘What began as social media activism and sporadic protests against the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in Thailand has now expanded into a broader-based student movement.’ While that can be a double-edged sword, as many authorities can easily dismiss the protesters as misguided children, it does represent a generational shift, which could have long-term repercussions for Thai politics. As Brian Harding from the United States Institute for Peace put it: ‘the presence of an untested and volatile monarch, rising inequality and economic challenges, and a new generation intent on pushing boundaries are driving Thai politics into a new, dynamic phase in what is a generational political struggle.’

Unprecedented or not, calls for reform have not been met with open ears from either the government or the monarch. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who came to power after staging a military coup, made his position clear while speaking to government supporters on 25 August. ‘The core of Thailand is comprised of nation, religion and monarchy. This will never change. I will never allow that to happen. Every Thai must defend Thailand from those who want to destroy our country … The law will never forgive them.’ King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time abroad, has remained largely quiet about the protests, calling for order and peace without mentioning the protests directly.

It is unlikely that these recent protests will see any significant outcome in the short-term future and their demands will continue be ignored. While small pockets of student-led protests may continue for some time, they will eventually lose momentum and fizzle out in the coming weeks or months. What will not disappear, however, is the discontent felt by a large portion of Thailand’s younger generation. Both the government and the monarch may find themselves needing to tread more carefully if they wish to avoid provoking further protests in the future.

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