Behind the Mask: Thailand’s Latest Political Movement Takes to the Streets
Image Credit: Steve Finch

Behind the Mask: Thailand’s Latest Political Movement Takes to the Streets

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Mim Putita, a student living in Bangkok, had never taken part in a political rally before. But on Sunday she joined her cousin, aunt and about 1,000 other anti-government protestors marching from the plush Central World shopping mall, past the even plusher Paragon mall and on to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center where they stood behind a cordon of a dozen riot police. Many donned white Guy Fawkes masks, the most recent addition to Thailand’s color-coded political spectrum.

“We don’t want Yingluck to be the prime minister,” said Pom Jutharat, Mim’s aunt, criticizing Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra. “It’s because of corruption.”

She then started to lay into Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, Thailand’s exiled former prime minister until a 2006 coup, and a figure widely viewed as the real power behind the current administration. “Thaksin is not our prime minister but he sent Yingluck to do what he wants,” said Pom.

On the surface, Thailand’s latest anti-Shinawatra movement seems new. With its gleaming white V-for-Vendetta masks, the movement has grown in recent weeks, spreading to different parts of the country for the first time on Sunday.

In the southern province of Surat Thani 100 protestors travelled in a car convoy chanting anti-government slogans. Similar numbers of masked demonstrators appeared further south in Songkhla on the border with Malaysia, and there were protests on the island resort of Phuket and Ratchaburi west of the capital.

Bangkok protestor Chantana Srivarapongs said news of the rallies spread through Facebook in particular, but also via other media, including television. The movement’s spontaneity credentials – a cherished attribute of other masked protests elsewhere in the world, particularly Occupy – have been further fueled by a reported lack of hierarchy.

“We are protesting together in silence and in a peaceful way. There are no leaders – that’s amazing, unbelievable,” said Chantana. To prove it, she noted how she had climbed a walkway up to a nearby Bangkok Skytrain station to greet the crowd: “I said to everyone: ‘Just get out. Thaksin, just get out.’”

Popularized on Wall Street and outside the London Stock Exchange in 2011, the rebellious symbolism of the white mask has since been used in a hodge-podge of protests across the globe. In January last year, Polish opponents of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement wore them. In February, the Bahrain government banned the masks fearing the latest installment of the Arab Spring, following the example of the United Arab Emirates a few months earlier.

In Thailand, the mask has been seen before in politics, despite numerous media reports to the contrary. On November 25, 2011, a small Bangkok gathering of groups opposing the then six month-old Yingluck government included little-known Siam Samakki (United Siam), which introduced its new “Anonymous Thailand” Facebook page the same evening, its members’ faces hidden behind white masks.

Although the recent, growing street movement appears not to be organized, so far there is every indication that beneath the mask this latest Thai political movement represents a familiar order.

Samran Viroj is the self-identified group leader, and formerly a core member of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, formed in early 2006 to oppose the former Thaksin administration in the name of the monarchy.

Meanwhile, former chief of the royal court police, Gen Vasit Dejkunjorn, and former senator Kaewsan Atibhodi will together launch an online “Thai Spring Forum” for anti-government voices, in an attempt to fuel momentum behind the mask rallies.

“The impact of our group will depend on the government’s actions. We want to create this cyber-campaign first just to be an electric charge and wait for the magnet to attract more people,” Kaewsan told The Nation newspaper.

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