A contribution by Alizée Menard, 1st-year student of the ESSCA Bachelor in International Management. « I chose to write on the protests movements in Thailand precisely because it is a subject that I did not know at all. So, I took the opportunity to learn new things about what is happening in the world and finally found it very enriching! »

Protest movements in Thailand have been regularly in the news for some years, but even more so in recent months. In order to answer the question whether the current movement may even put an end to the monarchy, we first need to look at the country’s political past.

A tumultuous history

Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 when a part of the army rebelled and overthrew the absolute monarchy. Since then, the country has seen more than twenty coups d’état, twelve of which were successful, bringing the army to power under the control of the king. However, on 17 May 1992, numerous demonstrations took place demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon. These demonstrations resulted in the death of approximately fifty people. The President therefore summoned the Prime Minister and the leader of the demonstrations on 20 May 1992. This confrontation marked a turning point in the history of Thailand because, during this televised exchange, the President ordered the end of violence and asked the two parties to work together.

However, many disagreements remained in the following years between the democrats and the pro-monarchy and, following the overthrow of Democratic Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, the army regained power in support of King Rama IX. Since then, many conflicts have arisen within the country, mainly between the « red shirts » who are pro-Thaksin and the « yellow shirts » who are pro-monarchy Royalists.

In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the exiled Prime Minister, was elected Prime Minister. However, she was overthrown by a yet another coup d’état on 22 May 2014. The army has been in control of the country since that date because the new Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha happens to be also commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army.

The current protest movement

Against this backdrop of instability, Thailand has been hit, in recent months, by numerous protests of a new kind. At the origin of these are Thai youth and the working class who are trying to fight against the military junta and the monarchy that rule the country.

Source: wikimedia

At the same time the country was hit by multiple, intertwined crises, especially at the economic level because, since even before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the Thai economy was in a very bad state. As a result, poverty in the country has been increasing considerably: “About one tenth of the population lives on $2.85 per day, while household debt stands at about 80 percent of GDP: one of the highest ratios in Asia”. Due to COVID, millions of Thai people have lost their jobs

All this fuels the demonstrations because the students no longer perceive any hope for their future. The protest movement now demands the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the dissolution of parliament and the rewriting of the constitution which gives broad power to 250 senators all chosen by the army. Some also criticized the educational system deemed too traditional, which forces them, in particular, to listen to the national anthem every morning. They also question the monarchical system and openly denounce it, which gives evidence of their great disarray when we know that defaming the monarchy in Thailand is punishable by 15 years in prison!

Since last November, demonstrations have been almost daily in the country. The recent arrest of three activists has caused tensions to rise even further. But the crisis has mainly highlighted how significant the inequalities in the country are and how the crisis benefits primarily for the pro-military elite. What’s more, during this time, King Rama X spent most of his time abroad, mainly in Germany, and made very few appearances throughout these events. The German government has made it clear that the Thai king cannot and should not govern his country while on German soil. This kind of situation is extremely rare in global diplomacy.

Source: wikimedia

The sign of protest for Thai students in support of the anti-government movement is made with 3 raised fingers that represents the sign of salvation in the Hunger Games saga (the popular dystopian movie series in which young people suffer from a dictatorial regime). A large majority of Thai students demonstrate daily by making this sign.

The Thai authorities are aware that this is the most important popular movement in the country’s history. Following the wave of protests, they issued an emergency decree prohibiting gatherings of five or more people and online messages that could “harm national security”. In order to be able to continue their movement, the protest leades “created their own coded language to bamboozle the police, using the word ‘broccoli’ to describe soldiers or ‘cappuccino’ to describe police”. Clearly, the Thai authorities are facing a new generation of demonstrators who will stop at nothing.

What will happen in 2021?

I think it is now possible to envisage changes in Thai policy in the coming months. Indeed, some sources have revealed that former « yellow shirts » have now changed sides and are demonstrating alongside the « red shirts » for a more democratic regime. The Thai authorities are therefore increasingly outnumbered, and this can work against them since the student movement seems to be constantly rallying people to its cause. This new generation of demonstrators is not afraid of repression appears to be ready to do anything to achieve its goal. This determination will benefit them because “the previously untouchable military dictatorship appeared powerless” and Prayut Chan-O-Cha fears that strong repression by the army may even amplify and radicalize the movement. In the meantime, Prayut was forced to cancel the emergency decree in the face of all these protesting masses.

However, in view of the many disagreements between the majority of the Thai population and the government, the idea of a potential coup should not be put aside. As we know, Thailand has already been subject to numerous coups d’état, which partly proves the regime’s inability to take pacific decisions without revolution.

The only way for the authorities to regain the upper hand would surely be to wait and hope that the movement will gradually dissolve. But the movement has gained strength and will probably be ready to bring down the monarchy if it continues to gain ground.

The recent protests of 18 November 2020 were the most violent since the beginning of July. The altercations between the demonstrators and the Thai police are increasingly violent as the authorities used water cannons and tear gas canisters during the protests. Despite this, the demonstrators continued to protest, using the slogan « if we burn, you burn with us », again drawn from the Hunger Games saga. So, they do not back down in the face of violence and the leaders of the movement call for further efforts by shouting “Keep fighting”. In fact, the movement has grown to such an extent that many anti-royal slogans launched by the demonstrators have no longer even been punished, something unthinkable just a few months ago. If this trend continues, the pro-democracy movement is therefore on the right track to reform Thai politics and put an end to the reign of King Rama X and monarchy altogether.

This student contribution was produced within the framework of the 1st-year module “Topics in International Relations » of ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management, following a course design developed by the EU-Asia Institute. The opinions expressed are of course those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institute.

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