Social change & unity struggles to find a place beside tradition

By chiara castro: political editor

The 14th of October is an important day for Thais. Every year, many people gather to commemorate the student uprising which occurred an infamous day during 1973. But this time it was different.

Thousands were there on the memorial site on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. All, mostly young students, waving the three fingers salute up in the air. The chant of “Abolish 112” was accompanying the march, reminding everybody how harsh the consequences of the Lèse-majesté laws are.

They were all united, not just to remember the struggles of restoring democracy in the country during the 70s, but also to protest. To raise their voice against institution, still perceived as being too unfair. And, against a monarchy, still shadowing their existence.

Almost at its epilogue, 2020 has been a year marked with social unrest. Many people around the world have spoken out against repressive governments, fighting for their rights.

During the past months, another hashtag filled the Twitter wall across the globe. #WhatsHappenin-gInThailand then?

The anger of the Thai young generation has been manifesting since the beginning of this surreal year. Although, the first wave of demonstrations was circumscribed within academic campuses for before being stopped by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the stakes were too high to remain silenced. Protests resumed during the summer, but they were no more a mere student affair.

Thousands filled the street of Bangkok, asking for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. He came to power in 2014 through a coup d’état, reportedly won rigged elections in 2019 and allegedly failed to respond to the economic crisis intensified by the pandemic.

Although, the real trigger came in February with the dissolution of Future Forward, a new pro-de-mocracy party formed by progressives and youth voice. This move has been seen as an attempt to suppress opposing political movements. Something that the new generation could no longer tolerate.

On the 18th of July, Free Youth organised a large protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. With 2,500 people in attendance, it became the biggest street demonstration since the 2014 Thai coup d’état.

During the march, three important demands were presented to Government: the dissolution of the parliament, the end of intimidation against Thai people and the drafting of a new constitution.

Also LGBTQ+ groups held some rallies, asking for gender equality and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Demonstrations, still ongoing, soon spread out of the capital’s borders. A large number of young people joined these events nationwide.

In order to understand the climate in which Thais are living, we should look back at its political history.

Since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced 12 coup d’état as well as suffered from a frequent political violence and a lack of freedom of expression.

Military and authoritarian reform, affecting different sphere of Thais’ lives, deepened even more the discomfort among the population. Especially within the youngest, hungry for democracy and equality.

During these years, Thai people have systematically fought for a better future despite the high risks that all this implicates.

Particularly, 2006 saw two main groups as the leaders of the opposition: the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), better known as“ Yellow Shirts”, and the Red shirts, supporter of the ex prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted during another coup d’état occurred in that year.

Although, instead of bringing the desired changes, these movements seemed to have weakened Thai civil society with their ideological conflicts. Whilst, the new generation of protesters could be seen as a bridge to this divide.

An anonymous source, who lives in Bangkok and experienced closely the events of the past months, told to The Mackayan: “In the past, protest groups were supported by investors who were com-petitors of Thai government at that time. While the current movement is composed by the new ge-neration who has never got convinced from the media.

“They are finding the information by themselves. So, it allows them to have different opinions about the monarch and Thai politics.”

They keep as a model the courage and anti-establishment ideals of the 1932 movement, helped by the new weapon that they now have between their hands: the power of social media.

Indeed, nowadays the battle is not only a fight on the streets. TikTok and Twitter are at the centre of the game.

Rioters are also borrowing symbols from the current pop culture to underlie the clash with the authoritarian regime. The three fingers salute, becoming the emblem of their fight across the world, came from the Hunger Games movies. But also references to Hamtaro and Harry Potter are other ways employed by the protesters for the same purpose.

Beside technology and contemporary symbolism, the 2020 pro-democracy movements are going to make history for another reason. It has been the first time since the 1930’s that protesters have had the guts to oppose the monarchy, loudly and in public.

“I believe that this movement will finally bring some changes. For example, before we couldn’t even say anything about Thai monarch. Now, there are many people revealing their stories. It is a public topic,” our source said.

Indeed, the turning point for the movement was in the 10th of August when Panusaya Sithijirawat-tanakul, a 21-year-old student, read in front of the crowd gathered at Thammasat University a powerful document that will be surely go down as a key historical point.

Beside the possible implications of that gesture, she publicly set 10 unique demands. These in-clude: revoking the infamous lèse-majesté law, abolishing all royal offices as well as the King’s le-gal immunity, cutting all royalist propaganda and investigating the disappearances and murders of all monarchy’s critics.

Surprisingly the J-Park group, as it was later nicknamed, did not scare its supporters. It rather broadened its grip beyond the student world. People of different ages and social classes started to stand up for the cause, in the name of a new revolution.

Since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced 12 coup d’état

For Westerners, used to openly criticising the Royals, it could not seem as such an important event. Well, speaking out against the monarchy is actually a crime in Thailand punishable with jail sentences up to 15 years.

However, this is a risk that apparently has to be taken. As Anon Nampa, the lawyer that helped to create the movement, said to Time Magazine: “People are sick and tired of living under a repressive regime.

“If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.”

If the crown has been always an issue, the new king has worsened the relationship between Thai so-ciety and royal class.

Coming to power in 2016 after the death of his father, who was largely beloved by the population, King Maha Vajiralongkorn took direct command of the army as well as centralised into his hands the ownership of the $40bn Crown Property Bureau’s holdings. He is actually the richest royal in the world, while millions of unemployed across the country struggle to survive.

This, mixed with a rather colourful personal life, have triggered an epochal shift against the monarchy.

So, during the 14 October demonstrations, for the first time in Thai history the royal yellow Rolls Royce was surrounded by an angry crowd of people shouting and insulting the crown. A scene that was so unusual that Thai journalists were even too embarrassed to report.

How are the authorities reacting to this new challenge?

The day after the 10 demands were disclosed, the prime minister declared a state of emergency pro-hibiting any gathering of more than five people. Authorities also arrested the leaders of the protest, including Panusaya, threatening a violent repression.

During a peaceful protest held in Bangkok on the 16th of October, police used high-pressure water cannons with chemical-filled water and tear gas to disperse the unarmed crowd, composed mainly of teenagers.

The Parliament ignored the protesters requests and, as the Guardian reported, Pryuth Chan-Ocha invoked the use of “all laws and articles” against the pro-democracy activists.

At this point, clashes between protesters and police as well as royalists groups became the new normal.

Intimidation, arbitrary detention, disinformation, media censorship and violence have been the main government responses.

The state is also attempting to restrict online freedom of speech. Through the Computer Crimes Act, the government blocked every anti-establishment content from social platforms, persecuting its authors.

Since the beginning of 2020, at least 173 people have been reported to be arrested or charged for taking part in the protests.

All this is sparking concerns amongst international human rights watch organisations, asking the Thai government to find a peaceful way to approach the situation.

A wave of support came also from its neighbouring countries. Hong-Kong and Taiwan activists expressed solidarity with the Thai protesters, whist finding comparisons for their own fight for freedom and general equality.

Although their specific situations could be slightly different, the main goal and strategies employed are the same. They are all leaderless movements, where memes, social media, unity and umbrellas are the weapons against state propaganda, censorship and water cannons.

Renamed the Milk Tea Alliance, from the traditional beverage that all three nations consume, they represent the new generation of Asian youth that are not afraid to speak out, not scared to question the authorities.

The first step for revolutionise a society is changing the mindset of people. That is happening and the Thai youth does not seem willing to stop.

Even though the path for a more inclusive and democratic Thailand is still appears far away, as the Sunday provincial elections pointed out, 2020 has marked a deep shift amongst Thais.

At the gates of a new year, we should all wish a better future for all in the Land of Smiles.

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