11 July 2024

To Thai people, 2020 was a year of two halves, and nobody had seen either half coming. The first featured surreal and scary scenes of empty streets, quiet city nights and abandoned food shops and restaurants. The other showcased vociferous political protests unprecedented in their taboo content and divisive effects on generations.

The year is ending with both halves threatening to converge to constitute a major political, economic and social threat never seen before in recent history. First, it had been COVID-19, then it was an anti-establishment campaign, and now it is looking increasingly like a combination of the two.

Both separate threats are facing their own restrictions. However, vaccines are facing setbacks and controversies and vociferous and potentially violent politics will still be simmering despite bans, disruptions to gatherings and legal action as well as scandals involving key figures. If 2019 was calm before a big storm, the end of 2020 is a storm enticing a bigger one.

The year began innocently enough, with a trigger-happy psycho tragically terrorizing a shopping mall in a northeastern province promising to be its biggest news. Then the coronavirus took hold and delivered devastating blows that sent Thailand and much of the world into lockdowns, crippling economies and altering lives beyond wild imaginations.

After months of pain, Thailand managed to keep COVID-19 at an arm’s length. Barely just, but it was enough to turn attention toward alleged aggression, cruelty and unkindness at a well-known school catering to middle-class and affluent families. Another major public outcry had to do with a lamentable justice process involving an obscenely-wealthy man caught in a fatal hit-and-run accident and spanning all kinds of political environments.

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Like the psycho killing earlier in the year, the school scandal looked set to dominate 2020, only to fall by the wayside in a hurry thanks to anti-establishment street protests that gathered momentum and became massive really quickly.

The protests divided generations, broke taboos and triggered a previously-unthinkable process of large-scale charter amendment. How the Constitution will be changed may involve a highly-unorthodox formula, too. More tension is guaranteed before a drafting assembly is set up, when the body does it job, and after that job is finished. And this is against a backdrop of great uncertainties generated by COVID-19 and moral, scientific, economic and political questions surrounding a variety of vaccines.

The year has seen political parties going through their own troubles and emerging from them limping. Internal fighting at the ruling Palang Pracharath Party caused major changes at its helm and a revolving-door situation at the all-important Finance Ministry. Not to be outdone, the opposition Pheu Thai Party allowed itself to be rocked by high-profile desertions and appeared ready to surrender the lead in ideological rebellion to its “frenemy”, the Move Forward Party, which in turn has major and potentially-crippling legal and constitutional challenges to navigate.

The year is ending with the eerie silence and unusual tumult competing to flex their muscles. Or they can even join forces, defying vaccines and problems for public gatherings. Second waves of COVID-19 are threatening many countries, and Thailand has been seeing big, worrisome signs as well. This flies in the face of good news about early vaccination, which hopefully could refill hotels, airports and tourist destinations around the world in 2021. Meanwhile, that “return to normal” and even a semblance of normalcy can only mean that Thailand’s political chaos will resume and intensify. And while the protest movement might not seem as massive or omnipresent as initially and has been hindered by a new round of physical restrictions, it has packed up abilities to spring big surprises and defy state measures.

It has been a year when Thais realize they are closer to the rest of the world, politically and economically, than they may have thought, and have to conduct a soul-searching on whether that is good or bad, on how to live with it, on what to embrace and on what to avoid. Somehow, the “two halves” of 2020 make Thais ponder about many similar things.

Is another lockdown forthcoming? Or will 2021 turn out to be Thailand’s most tumultuous year in recent history, with a threat of big violence always hanging in the air? No-one can really tell for sure, as 2020, the most peculiar year in decades, is still unfolding.

By Tulsathit Taptim