Thailand’s pro-democracy protests of 2020

Protestors in Thailand showing the three-fingered symbol. (Aljazeera, 2020)
By Billy Mujana & Nieck Weeke

Pop Culture Inspiration

What does an American sci-fi movie franchise have in common with a series of protests in the South East Asian country of Thailand? The American movie franchise The Hunger Games is based on a trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins with the same name. This series takes places in a future dystopian world, located in what used to be the United States of America. Each of the 12 districts of Panem, which is the new name for the country, is required to send 2 tributes annually to an arena in which their fight to death is broadcast live to the entire nation. *SPOILER ALERT* Further on in this series protests and uprisings begin to occur, where citizens oppose the government and their death show. The series end in the overthrowing of the government making an end to a long war.

Now, it might still be very blurry as to why this dystopian world is related to the Kingdom of Thailand today. During the series, the rebellion against the government uses a solidary symbol, which is a raised right hand, with the index, middle, and ring fingers pointing upwards. In the recent protests in Thailand, this same symbol is used by protestors and has become a Thai symbol of resistance.

2020 is not the first time that protestors started using this symbol, as it was already seen back in 2014 when people protested against the military regime. (Japan Times, 2020) The Thai people saw why this symbol was used in the fictional country of Panem, where the uprising also targeted the wealthy next to the authoritarian government. A protestor explained that in Thailand there is a huge gap between the rich and poor people, and that power in the country is unequally distributed. The situation in Thailand seems to be similar to that in Panem, which is why this three-fingered symbol has become a symbol to the uprising in Thailand. Next to this three-fingered symbol, people have started chanting the song “Do You Hear The People Sing?” from the Les Misérables musical and film. Les Misérables shows the story of an uprising against the French July Monarchy. (Straits Times, 2020)

Background and History

To better understand the protests of 2020 in Thailand, it is important that we first take a look at some basic information about the country. The Kingdom of Thailand is the 22nd most populous country in the world with a population of 66 million people and is allocated to 76 provinces which all fall under King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s (or Rama X’s) reign.  Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, which is one that exercises authority by means of the written/unwritten constitution (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019). From the years 1932-2017 the governance has shifted back and forth from military dictatorship and electoral democracy due to its 13 successful and 9 failed coup attempts along with 20 changes of the constitution. The very first coup being “the bloodless coup” occurred in 1932 (Thai Enquirer, 2020) and this led to Thailand’s very first formal constitution however things have been anything but formal since then.

The struggle for power in Thailand stems from disagreements between pro-democracy parties, the military and the monarchy with the 2 latter in close relation. One of the most relevant coups to the 2020 protests is the 2006 coup that took place as Thaksin Shinawatra (former prime minister of Thailand and the first prime minister to win by electoral vote) was ousted on a UN trip to New York (T. Abhasakun, 2020). Additionally the military removed the “people’s constitution” and put in place their own constitution which essentially gave them complete control over Thailand (M. Kennedy, 2016). Thaksin was very popular in the cities and rural areas because he played a major part of reforms to curb poverty and strengthen healthcare as well as education (S. Wannabovorn, 2005). His opponents were mainly made up of middle-class people and royalists who believed he was not loyal to the kingdom and that he was an enabler for corruption (K. Hawkins, 2017). Thaksin’s brother-in- law and sister have since his ouster in 2006 both been elected prime minister at the disapproval of many with suspicions that his influence on Thai politics was growing too much (his sister Yingluk being the latter one of the two to become prime minister). After Yingluk’s dismissal in 2014 over a politically motivated abuse of judicial power the military staged another coup before a new prime minister could be elected; placing Army General Prayuth Chan-O-Cha in the role of prime minister. This therefore paved the way for the junta to increase their grip on the necks of protesters in an effort to silence the masses.

Long Live the King

Fast forward to 2016 and previous king of the monarchy Bhumibol Adulyadej dies, therefore opening up the door for Maha Vajiralongkorn to become the new king. Thai elites expressed concerns over his ability to rule justly and comprehensively. Elections that were due initially for 2014 were postponed for a 5 year period to 2019 with a change in constitution which rewrote the rulebook on government positions and who is able to get them. During this 5 year period the military junta was still in control of Thailand and was utilizing this control to prevent negative criticism against the monarchy or the governance of the country completely (H. Mikael, 2017). This new constitution comprised of rule changes such as the following

  • The military was able to elect 250 senators who joined the current 500 and therefore being able to vote in a Prime minister of their choice.
  • Prime minister did not have to be a member of parliament but they had to be voted in by the majority of senators and MPs therefore giving General Chan-Ocha the upper hand.
  • All 250 members of the senate were chosen by the National Council for Peace and Order (the military junta’s interim government).
  • Any government elected would have to follow a 20 year strategic roadmap laid out by the National Council or Peace and Order ( military junta) therefore restricting their reform and constitutional power in the first place

Thaksin returned for the 2019 elections and was represented by two different parties. One was the Pheu Thai Party which was founded in 2008 after his Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved for violation of electoral laws (S. Mydans, 2007). The other was Thai Raksa Chart Party which was led by the sister of king Vajiralongkorn, Ubol Ratana who renounced her title when she married a non-Thai person. This party drew attention from royalists due to her being of royal descent however with displeasure from her brother who publicly denounced her candidacy as inappropriate (interference in election process). This therefore led to Thai Raksa Chart being dissolved shortly after, leaving Thaksin to rely on one party which was only registered in 250 of the 350 constituency seats. Regardless of his disadvantage Pheu Thai Party won 136 of the 250 seats therefore making it the largest party. Palang Pracharath Party which is a state sponsored party with links to the junta came second with 116 total votes. In third place was the new Future Forward Party which was an anti-military party who won 81 total votes. Future Forward and Pheu Thai’s 7 party coalitions fell short of the 251 majority by 6 seats therefore handing victory to the general and crucially, allowing the military to continue ruling (M. Suhartono, 2019).

The Future is Forward

This Future Forward Party (FFP) can be seen as the direct cause to the beginning of protests in 2020. On February 21, 2020, this party was dissolved by Thai court after being critical with the military government in Thailand. (Straits Times, 2020) However, officially this party was dissolved on the charges of ‘campaign financing’ (BBC, 2020) which sparked major protests over the military and monarchy’s influence over the constitution. The king also has direct command over 2 army units; he has adjusted the constitution to allow him to rule remotely because he lives in Germany; has plans on making Thailand an absolute monarchy; and he has also taken control over the crown property bureau which has finances up to $40 billion of which he has already allocated himself for the financial year of 2021. Not to mention that criticism of the king could land you in jail for 3-15 years bases on lèse-majesté law (E. Mérieau, 2017).

The dissolvement of this political party caused a wave of flash mobs organised by students at high schools and universities. These flash mobs were often organised just a day before happening, which became a trend throughout the country. First, these protests were mostly pointed at the anger of the dissolvement of the FFP, but quickly turned towards the whole political situation in Thailand, as protestors chanted: “Dictators, get out. Long live Democracy.” The people are turning against their laws. Take for example Pongsak Sriboonpeng who was sentenced to 60 years for 6 facebook posts that were seen as offensive by the military courts. His sentence was then reduced to 30 years marking the longest sentence for lèse-majesté. All this while he was subjected to trials behind closed doors, being held for a week without charges and his devices being confiscated so they can search for more incriminating evidence (Agence France-Presse in Bangkok, 2015).

Since most of the protests were organised by students from universities, high schools, and colleges and these took place on school ground, the movement quickly dissolved with the outbreak of the corona pandemic and the closure of schools in Thailand. However, this same pandemic caused a new wave of protests in July 2020, because of the failing economy in the country, and a new ban on gatherings by the government. (Reuters, 2020) This new protest took place at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok and saw numbers that have not been seen since the 2014 coup. Reports mention over 2500 protestors at the Democracy Monument on July 18th. A movement called the Free Youth Group announced three demands that there are protesting for, which were soon to be adopted by protest groups around the nation. The protestors demand the parliament to step down, there should be a new constitution, and the government should immediately stop with threatening their citizens. (Bangkok Biznews, 2020) Different movements in Thailand have different demands, but most of them share the same basic three demands of the Free Youth Group.

What is clear from these protests is that they are mostly organised and done by young people, as there are many references to pop culture. Like with the references to The Hunger Game and Les Misérables, the protestors took another pop culture reference and used it to their advantage in July. On July 26, around 3000 people gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to run. While running around the monument, protestors started singing a song from the well-known Japanese cartoon Hamtaro. The group criticised the government by changing the lyrics to “the most yummy things of all are…. citizens’ taxes.” (Work Point Today, 2020)

Protestor holding up a Hamtaro pillow. (Nikkei Asia, 2020

A Japanese cartoon, an American dystopian movie, and a musical about a failed French coup are not the only references to pop culture that are seen in the Thai protests of 2020. This list continues with maybe Britain’s most famous fictional boy, Harry Potter, when around 200 people joined a Harry Potter themed protest. Later, on August 10, the protestors announced they now had 10 demands that include major reforms on the monarchy, like revoking immunity, revoking laws that prohibit criticism on the monarchy, and reducing the budget, among other demands.(Prachatai, 2020) For Thailand, these kind of demands are almost unprecedented, since the monarchy was taboo to talk about.

Until September 19th, 2020, several protests took place in several places in Thailand. On September 19, one of the largest protests in years took place at Thammasat University, and moved to Sanam Luang, to stay there overnight. The numbers of people attending this protest are estimated between 20.000 and 100.000 people. (Benar News, 2020) After this massive protest, not many big events were held for almost a month.

Protestors Clash with Royal Motorcade

The aversion of the protestors against the monarchy became clear on October 14th. A protest was planned in Bangkok, at the same day that a royal progression around the city would take place. Protestors claimed they would not be on the route of this progression. However, the motor cade of the royal family suddenly changed routes and clashed with protestors. (Khaosod, 2020) Protestors again used their Hunger Games symbol and shouted slogans at the motorcade. Some sources accused the government of deliberately sending the motor cade through the protestors. (IntellAsia, 2020)

These accusations are in line with the type of military rule which actively searches for wrong within its civilians, and has had detrimental effects on the Thai populations trust in their leadership. This chaos led to roughly 200000 civilians marching to the government house on October 14th 2020 and as you’d predict the government sent police to disperse the protesters; additionally they banned gatherings of 4 or more people and issued a further state of emergency. This is now allowing the government to detain protestors without charge for a month with no access to lawyers or family members.

Prayut then delivered a speech to warn civilians “Do not trifle with the grim reaper. Death may come today or other day. Everyone can die at any moment.” The October 14 protests were an opportunity for police forces to target protesters with reports that water cannons laced with a blue dye and some forms of tear gas were used to disperse them, the purpose of the blue dye was to identify protesters for later arrests (C, Mitchell. 2020).

On October 15th, the government responded by announcing a state of emergency in Bangkok. Protestors responded to this that they would continue, and students were seen organising flash protests at universities. (Prakachat, 2020) Protestors made use of social media in order to organise protests. Demonstrations were announced on short notice, being held at multiple locations, making police response harder. The government responded to this by shutting down public transport in Bangkok, to make it harder for protestors to move. (Bangkok Post, 2020)

The government tried a new move on October 20th, threatening to shut down social media sites like Facebook and Telegram. The Free Youth Group announced in response that they would have a big surprise, being that they were to hold a break. (Bangkok Post, 2020) Sources still reported protests after this break, including clashes between pro-democracy and pro-royalists groups.(Khaosod, 2020)  However, on October 22nd, Prayut announced that the emergency state was being lifted, while protestors said they were giving Prayut three days to resign. (CNN, 2020) Prayut did not resign, leading to the restart of protests. Prayut announced debates in parliament about the current situation in Thailand, however, these did not address demands and wishes of protestors. (The Diplomat, 2020)

What will the future bring?

Right now, it is unclear what the future will hold for Thailand. It is clear that the country is divided, showing massive support for pro-democracy change, while also royalists are showing their support for the royal family and prime minister Prayut. Protestors are claimed to be counting on pro-democracy parties in parliament, but these parties seem to fear the repercussions of standing up against Prayut and the monarchy, leaving it unsure whether protestors will succeed. (CFR, 2020)

We know that the battle between the two sides are not over yet. The Thai government has gone onto launching legal proceedings towards Facebook and Twitter for being tools to providing a voice for the public, as if they must remain voiceless when they are facing injustice. Thailand has also blocked the Telegram app and shut down Voice TV (a national TV station) because it aired scenes from one of the protests.

The future will tell whether the young generation with their clever ways of protesting, or the government will win.

Thai Protests


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