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

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

The masked protesters are the latest development in an ongoing fight for political control.

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.

General criticism of the government has certainly grown in recent weeks as Yingluck nears the half-way point of her four-year term. Thailand’s rice-pledging scheme, a key part of her party’s election campaign in 2011 and designed to guarantee elevated prices for farmers, has suffered growing accusations of corruption amid opaque state contracts, a 35-percent decline in exports last year and concerns that it will take up to three years to clear growing stockpiles of rice left sitting in warehouses across the country. In recent weeks the government has come under rising pressure to reveal the true cost of the scheme. Recent estimates – denied but not corrected by the Commerce Ministry – suggest a bill of more than 300 billion baht ($10 billion) for Thai tax payers.

A controversial 350 billion baht water scheme and its associated environmental and corruption concerns has proven similarly damaging for the government.

Thanet Aphornsuvan, a political historian and dean of the Pridi Banomyong International College at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, says that an administration under pressure may not necessarily translate into momentum behind the mask campaign, however.

“The people in the middle, the so-called silent majority … are disappointed [with the mask campaign],” says Thanet. “I don’t think it’s significant because they don’t have anything new at all. There’s no alternative. It’s just the same: Get rid of Thaksin.” This recent movement is little more than a reincarnation of the monarchist Yellow Shirts (a group which has all but died in the past year or so), he says, joined by a few hundred dissatisfied converts to their anti-Shinawatra cause.

The mask movement also suffers from confused political symbolism, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at Kyoto University.

While the white-mask Occupy and Anonymous movements were typified by unstructured, Communist-driven anarchic sympathies targeted at institutions of power and money, Thailand’s version is using the same symbolism in the name of the upper classes to defend the monarchy, he says.

“All of these things [together] are just so absurd,” says Pavin. “How can we have Communism and these people holding a portrait of the king and queen?” Although the government should not underestimate the movement, compared to its opposing number the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirts, it remains woefully inferior, he adds.

The Shinawatras between them have won every Thai election since Thaksin entered politics in 1998, their rule in government punctuated only by the 2006 coup and subsequent premiership of opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who rose to power on a parliamentary vote in late 2008.

In May 2010, hundreds of thousands of Red Shirts occupied the commercial district of Bangkok, prompting a military crackdown ordered by Abhisit who faces charges stemming from the killings that resulted. Shinawatra critics argue that these are mostly designed to level the legal playing field with Thaksin – who himself faces two years in prison should he return – in a bid to secure a political amnesty that has been touted almost from the moment Yingluck took power.

Jakrapob Penkair, a spokesman for the then Thaksin administration and a key organizer of the Red Shirt movement, sees the recent anti-Shinawatra protests as the latest stage of the ongoing battle for political control, “whether these small groups know it or not.”

Living in exile in Phnom Penh following accusations of lèse majesté, a charge which typically incurs a prison term of at least 10 years, Jakrapob says that Thai politics remains a waiting game for the time being.

Thaksin is still in exile. His sister stands accused of attempting to smooth his return by amending the constitution drawn up following his ouster. Meanwhile ailing 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has entered his 67th year on the throne with the monarchy ever-present at the summit of Thailand’s power structure.

“The mask is just a part of it,” says Jakrapob. “It’s just part of the big game plan, a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.