In the past several days, hundreds of Thais have joined anti-coup protests across the country, defying an army directive against the gathering of more than five persons in public places. Compared to the anti-coup protests in 2006, the rallies last weekend were bigger and more ambitious. Street protests are not new in Thailand, but the growing anti-coup opposition has the potential to develop into a broad and popular democracy campaign that could challenge not just the military dictatorship, but also the credibility of mainstream parties.
For six months, Thailand experienced large and provocative anti-government rallies. Government buildings were occupied, a “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign paralyzed the commercial district for several days, and major highways were barricaded. The protests were similar to a 2008 airport blockade that also destabilized the government.
Looking back, the protests succeeded in consolidating opposition to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. However it is curious that, for a supposedly pro-democracy movement, the protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee didn’t get the support of global human rights groups and activist networks.
Malaysia’s Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) earned the sympathy of election reform advocates, Cambodia’s labor unrest inspired solidarity action for striking garment workers, and the Million People March in the Philippines exposed the continuing corruption in that country. They were clearly political protests, but they were never dismissed as anti-democratic or elitist. They were also clearly linked to citizen campaigns for good governance, economic reform, and election modernization.
In Thailand, the protests articulated legitimate populist issues like corruption, but many people were concerned about the protesters decision to reject the electoral process. Many couldn’t understand why the protesters demanded the appointment of an unelected body to govern the country. Perhaps anti-government protesters could have pushed for greater voting reforms, but instead they allowed their spokespersons to make inflammatory statements, for instance claiming that Thailand is not ready for Western-style democracy, or that voters can’t be trusted because the majority are incapable of making intelligent decisions.
The protesters had a valid point about the influence of money politics in elections, but instead of focusing exclusively on the Shinawatra family, they could also have held other elitist parties accountable, including members of the opposition.
For these reasons, Thailand’s anti-government protest campaign was never really recognized by the international community as an Arab Spring-inspired movement.
However, the coup and the opposition it has sparked could now revive world interest in a Thai democracy movement.
Everyone can now get together behind the idea of restoring democracy by calling for an end to the military rule. Thais from various political backgrounds can agree on the need to protect free speech. They can demand the release of detained leaders, academics, journalists, and protestors. They can take their cue from the international community, which has expressed disappointment over the declaration of martial law and the subsequent coup itself.
After months of protesting against a government perceived as corrupt, perhaps Thais can reclaim the streets once more – this time to fight for democracy. If they do, then maybe this time around their voices will be amplified by people around the world.