As fears of pandemic ebb, students return to the streets
In defiance of the state of emergency which has been in force for nearly four months, thousands showed up last Saturday for the biggest anti-government demonstration since COVID-19 hit the country, with related Facebook pages getting more than half a million followers. The event’s hashtag top-trended on social media.
All signs now indicate that the Prayut government must begin listening to the movement’s demands for change, observers said.
Led by Thai student activists under the “Free Youth” banner, the rally comes as the government is facing a crisis of faith among some quarters of the public over its efforts to ease virus-related economic suffering, as well as power struggle that has erupted in the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.
The protesters, mostly students and young people, ignored the state of emergency ban on public gatherings and rallied at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Saturday to demand the return of “full democracy”. It was the first major political demonstration since lockdown measures were eased.
They issued three demands: dissolution of Parliament to pave the way for a new election, an end to the harassment of government critics, and the redrafting of a more democratic constitution. They threatened to return to the streets in two weeks if their demands are not met.
Analysts warned that the youth-based movement poses a risk to the government, adding that the only way of defusing the pressure was to prioritise economy rebuilding and selecting a Cabinet of qualified individuals to restore public trust.
Though the chance of building a large protest movement of “organised mobs” is small, the students could still pose a big challenge to the government if the economy fails to improve, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
“If the government fails to tackle the economic crisis brought by COVID-19, other groups suffering from the downturn – such as low-income and middle-class people as well as businesspeople – may join the student movements if they become disillusioned with the government’s handling of the situation,” Yuthaporn said.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha needs to shake up the Cabinet by replacing his recently resigned economic team with experienced individuals and share his vision on rebuilding the economy to win public confidence in the short term.
Last week, the four technocrats credited with running the economy – deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak, finance minister Uttama Savanayana, energy minister Sontirat Sontijirawong and higher education, science and innovations minister Suvit Maesincee – as well as deputy secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Kobsak Pootrakul, stepped down following mounting pressure from Palang Pracharath factions that saw them ousted from its leadership .
“If Prayut allows the ruling party’s politicians to dominate his [choice of new economic ministers] it will only give student activists momentum to make more demands,” Wanwichit said.
Observers also warned that any attempt to quell the protest with violence could backfire badly on the powers-that-be.
Sirote Klampaiboon, a political pundit, voiced concern the government may add fuel to fire if it gets tough in enforcing the emergency law to stop the rallies.
Recent student rallies were not motivated by politics, he said, but by anger and frustration over the economic crisis, social issues, and risking a second wave of virus infections by allowing foreign VIPs to enter the country without undergoing quarantine.
“Yet the government will always look at the rallies as politically motivated, which is a misconception and will lead to mishandling of protesters,” Sirote said.
“The activists were aware they could be prosecuted [for violating the state of emergency]. This shows that they are ready to exercise civil disobedience and are not afraid of the authorities. This is not a good sign [for the government] and if there is mishandling, then the sentiment [against the government] will only grow,” he said.
However, analysts say the students’ demands are unlikely to be heeded, though Prayut may soften on the charter amendment issue by inviting protesters to meet with the House committee studying amendments to the 2017 Constitution.
“This may help ease the pressure and buy him time, because many of the students prefer to keep the peace and will accept the invitation,” Wanwichit said.
As things stand, the current Constitution cannot be changed without consent from at least 84 of the 250 junta-appointed senators.
Huge virtual presence
The rally received much attention, both in Thailand and overseas, with the Thai hashtag #เยาวชนปลดแอก or #YaowachonPlodAke (#FreeYouth) breaking the record with 10.8 million tweets, surpassing the 8.5 million tweets of the #KoratShooting hashtag generated by early February’s mass shooting in a Nakhon Ratchasima shopping mall.
The students’ three demands were translated into many languages, including English, Korean, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese and Lao before being tweeted and retweeted.
Students in Chiang Mai and Ubon Ratchathani also held protests the following day (Sunday), echoing the demands of their peers in Bangkok.
Sirote reckoned that the student protests will maintain their momentum and significance, adding that their small size was to be expected since emergency laws allowed the government to use force to deal with demonstrators.
Of greater importance, he said, was the number of protesters who attended the rallies online via Facebook. The number of virtual participants rose to more than 500,000 per page, surpassing the audience for many television programmes, Sirote said.
“In this ‘new normal’ era, the high number of virtual demonstrators shows that much of the public share a common [anti-government] sentiment,” the analyst said.
Thailand’s latest wave of student activism began in February when the Future Forward Party was disbanded by the Constitutional Court for violating the Political Party Act by borrowing Bt191.2 million from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
One day after the ruling, the Student Union of Thailand staged its first flash mob in the name of justice and democracy. Since then, university and high-school students nationwide have been staging simultaneous rallies on campuses, where the public assembly law does not apply.
Future Forward’s dissolution triggered protests nationwide against what was perceived as unfair treatment of the country’s third-largest political party, but the demands then expanded to cover a charter rewrite, Prayut’s resignation, the dissolution of Parliament, and more.
The students, however, suspended their push after the arrival of COVID-19 and the imposition of a country-wide lockdown in late March.
Yet despite the state of emergency, students began rallying again in early June to seek justice for Thai political activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit, who was snatched off a street in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh by unknown assailants.
Then on June 24, students rallied nationwide to mark the 88th anniversary of the 1932 Siamese Revolution.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk