Hidden political agenda or genuine call for change?
With the COVID-19 crisis receding in Thailand, restrictions on public gatherings have been relaxed and young protesters are returning to the streets nationwide to demand changes to the Constitution and dissolution of the House of Representatives.
Mostly university students, the protesters have also demanded that the government stop using legal means to silence critics of the government.
The powers-that-be, particularly Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the military, are the main targets of speakers and placard carriers at the demonstrations. Some protesters have also taken swipes at the monarchy in banners and speeches.
In response, Army commander General Apirat Kongsompong last Friday cautioned the demonstrating students to show respect and refrain from using offensive language towards the royal family. He characterised the protesters as part of a “conspiracy” against Thailand’s institutions, but declined to clarify if he believed a politician or politicians were behind the plot.
Supporters of the anti-establishment rally describe the protesters as a younger generation venting their frustrations at the country’s systemic ills and seeking progressive changes.
However, critics suspect many of those taking part in the street protests harbour a hidden agenda.
Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn voiced concern at the presence of protest placards with veiled and direct references to the monarchy.
Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul and former yellow-shirt protest leader, said he was convinced the mastermind behind the placards aimed to provoke violent clashes between police and protesters.
Academic and media personality Seri Wongmontha said he was convinced that “people pulling the strings” behind the anti-monarchy placards wanted to incite violence between the protesters and angry royalists.
Work of infiltrators?
However, opposition MP Nakorn Machim from the Pheu Thai Party pointed his finger at the authorities – claiming the placards were the work of infiltrators sent in to undermine the protesters’ legitimacy and pave the way for a crackdown.
Almost daily during the past week, large groups of people – sometimes estimated at several hundred – have held demonstrations in Bangkok and other provinces, with more planned in coming weeks.
The student rallies began in late February when “flash mobs” at universities and schools nationwide protested the court’s disbandment of the opposition Future Forward Party for accepting donations from its leader – an illegitimate source. Young voters had formed a large part of the 6 million-plus supporters who propelled Future Forward to a third-place finish in the March 2019 general election.
February’s protesters demanded democracy, justice and an end to dictatorship. The anti-government sentiment began to pick up steam when COVID-19 struck and a state of emergency was imposed in late March, resulting in a ban on public gatherings.
Just days after the latest student protests erupted, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Future Forward’s former secretary-general, commented that citizens were growing increasingly impatient and looking for “changes for the better”.
“The minority in power” were promoting the slow path of evolution, and it was the duty of citizens to “transform the evolution into a revolution”, he said on Facebook on Friday.
“Turn slow change into an uprooting change. Turn an impossibility into possibility,” Piyabutr wrote.
Many people suspected his message was aimed at inspiring the young protesters to push for changes beyond House dissolution or Prayut’s ouster.
A French-educated law professor before entering politics, Piyabutr was part of the Nitirat group of academics that actively campaigned for changes to the lese majeste law, which they viewed as draconian and a political tool used by the powers-that-be to target political enemies.
Serious allegation rejected
Piyabutr’s detractors often paint him as an enemy of the monarchy. But in January he publicly rejected the allegation that he and Future Forward’s other key leaders – many of whom now lead the Progressive Movement – backed abolition of the monarchy.
Tipanan Sirichana, a politician from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, last Friday questioned the appropriateness of Piyabutr’s message encouraging a “citizens’ revolution” and an “uprooting change”. She called on him to clarify “as a man” what kind of change he wanted.
It seems the young anti-establishment protesters have no clear leadership, with main organisers including the Student Union of Thailand and little-known groups such as Free Youth and the New Life Network.
Information and timings of the rallies are shared via social media and other online channels. At the protests, people with a history of campaigning against General Prayut, his government and the military take turns in addressing the crowds.
However, the anti-monarchy messages interspersed here and there at the rallies have led to suspicion that the intended targets go beyond the prime minister and his cronies.
Even long-time observers of Thai politics are unsure about the protesters’ real goals and convictions, though many cite their innocent passion and desire for national progress.
Some have questioned whether the protests reflect the “pure” student activism of the early 1970s, which triggered the fall of a military dictatorship in October 1973.
However, critics noted that Piyabutr’s call for a “citizens’ revolution” coincided with the student protests and could be viewed as a cynical political move.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk