11 July 2024

2020 brought a completely new kind of protest to Thailand – anti-establishment rallies that truly belong to the digital age.

Tech-savvy young protesters relied on social media to spread their message, schedule demonstrations and communicate with each other.

In a battle of wits against the powers-that-be, the youngsters employed tools both old and new – wielding sophisticated digital communication strategies alongside traditional means like hand signals and code words. Some of their tactics were inspired by fellow pro-democracy protesters fighting for autonomy in Hong Kong.

The protests here in Thailand developed into an inter-generational game of cat-and-mouse between young activists and middle-aged state officials. Police blocked sites where they expected rallies to take place, only for protesters to pop up somewhere else.

In a break with recent history, the protests were led by students and young people rather than politicians. At its peak, the anti-establishment movement drew thousands to its rallies.

After nearly five years of junta rule and another year under an elected government led by the coup leader, political discontent boiled over when the Constitutional Court in February dissolved the Future Forward Party for breaking rules on funding.

The verdict angered many young people, whose support in the 2019 general election saw Future Forward stun pundits to come third with 81 MP seats in its polling debut.

The party’s dissolution resulted in a 10-year political ban for all Future Forward executives including co-founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a wealthy auto parts tycoon-turned-politician.

Small “flash mobs” began popping up shortly after the court verdict, but COVID-19 and health restrictions soon put a brake on the protests.

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Protesters returned to the streets after a five-month break when the government began relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, with the Free Youth group gathering at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on July 18. They demanded an end to “harassment of activists by authorities”, a democratic charter and dissolution of Parliament.

Similar protests were held in many other provinces in tandem with online campaigns. The young organisers adopted playful themes and gimmicks inspired by Harry Potter, Japanese manga as well as yellow rubber ducks, which soon became an icon of the anti-establishment campaign.

The protesters and their supporters also adopted the “Hunger Games” three-finger salute as a gesture of defiance against the powers-that-be.

The movement insisted the rallies were organic, coming together naturally after years of political discontent. Critics, however, claimed foreign interference, especially from the West.

On August 10, protesters released a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform at a rally led by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration. The manifesto sparked the ire of royalists, who claimed it was an attempt to bring down the monarchy.

Also, the protesters added the demands for a democratic Constitution and for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to step down.

October was a busy month, with rallies taking place almost daily.

Prayut responded by putting Bangkok under a “severe” state of emergency on October 15, one day after Her Majesty the Queen’s motorcade was disrupted by protesters.

A day later, police cracked down on protesters at Pathum Wan intersection, using water cannon against them for the first time. They also resorted to blocking protest sites with walls of razor wire and towers of shipping containers.

After dozens of protest leaders were arrested in mid-October, the rallies became “leaderless and fluid” – another tactic inspired by the Hong Kong protest movement. However, critics again voiced doubt that the Thai protests were organic, accusing certain politicians of pulling the strings.

Later in the year, the movement was undermined by rivalry between guards and reported disagreements among leaders.

Meanwhile, Free Youth sparked criticism with its “Restart Thailand” campaign featuring an “RT” logo styled to resemble the communist hammer and sickle symbol. The stunt turned a spotlight on the movement’s lack of clear ideological direction.