Thailand: Poking the Tiger

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Thailand: Poking the Tiger

Young student activists are unlikely to bring down the junta — but they can make its life more difficult.

Thailand: Poking the Tiger
Credit: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Activists in Thailand have a busy calendar. Throughout the year they solemnly mark anniversaries of key dates in the struggle to establish a meaningful democracy in the kingdom. The surfeit of such events highlights just how turbulent the country’s modern history has been, with no less than twelve military coups since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932. On May 22 this year, a group of students calling themselves New Democracy Movement (NDM) held a spirited protest to mark the anniversary of the most recent coup, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. Fourteen of the students were arrested – literally dragged away – and held for twelve days by a junta intent on stamping out any signs of dissent. They were released with charges still hanging over them, including one of sedition, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

The students were unbowed and last month used the anniversary of another of Thailand’s coups to denounce military rule once again. On September 19, they gathered to remember the 2006 putsch that ousted Yingluck’s elder brother Thaksin and sent the country careening into chaos. Proceedings started at the traditionally liberal Thammasat University, an important site in Thai history due to the massacre of student protesters that occurred there in 1976. The NDM then led a crowd of up to two hundred on a march to the nearby Democracy Monument, where Red Shirt protestors rallying to call for elections were shot dead by the military in April 2010. Tragically, Thai history is as littered with killings as it is coups.

Against the impressive backdrop of the monument, the students delivered speeches and handed out slick-looking pamphlets criticizing the military and calling on people to rise up to defend their freedom. The unflagging Sirawit Serithiwat, who has been arrested countless times since the coup, and Rangsiman Rome, who shot to fame after his robust scuffle with police in May, presided over events. They are the new face of the struggle for democracy in Thailand.

However, amongst the new faces were some familiar older faces too. Red Shirt activists have been laying advisedly low since the military seized power, but a look around suggested they may have been buttressing the crowd that day. For every youngster in tight jeans and converse sneakers there was also an older protestor who, outwardly at least, seemed to fit the demographic of the now dormant movement. They are newly emergent middle-class from the provinces, dressed tidily but simply and without the trappings of conspicuous consumption so beloved by well-heeled Bangkokians. Middle-aged women in particular – so called “aunties” – formed the backbone of the Red Shirts and were also prominent at the gathering that day.

Nearby was another fixture of the Red Shirt movement; the city’s ubiquitous motorbike taxi drivers. Sitting on their bikes, they watched the protest with interest and eagerly read the NDM pamphlets. On those pages they would find many claims which echoed the Red Shirts’ own, especially denunciations of privy councilor Prem Tinsulanonda, who is alleged to have played a pivotal role in the assault on Thai democracy. Given the similarities in aims and beliefs, it seems natural that there be some crossover between the two movements.

Fond Memories

Of course, any Red Shirt taking part in political activities nowadays does so without their signature color, which would quickly provoke the junta. But for any who may have been present, the day would have stirred bittersweet memories. Twenty were killed at the monument in April 2010 when a storm of army bullets ricocheted off the stone structure, sending white clouds of dust into the night sky and leaving bloodied corpses strewn on the street. However, the movement which began as a reaction to the 2006 coup has given them a sense of identity, pride and empowerment. Despite the suffering they speak of now, looking back also brings fond memories for rank-and-file Reds, who have shown a determination to fight which has at times surpassed that of the leadership. To be out on the streets once again calling for democracy would therefore remind them of the headier days of the movement, before hope turned to resignation and despair.

If the NDM were aware of the presence of their fellow travellers, then it was left unacknowledged. Speeches and pamphlets made no mention of the lineage connecting the fledgling movement with their predecessors, nor was anything said about the Red Shirts killed on that very spot for opposing the same coup the NDM were now demonstrating against.

One possible reason is that any Red Shirt activity in post-coup Thailand would be dealt with severely by the military. It came as a surprise to everyone – not least of all the NDM – that the police permitted the protest to go ahead that day. This is perhaps because the junta views the activities of a small group of students as merely a nuisance whereas the specter of Red Shirt mobilization is seen as a serious threat. It is therefore wise for the NDM to disassociate themselves from the group.

But it is also possible that the NDM are attempting to open a new political space for themselves, freed from the baggage of the color politics which has torn Thailand in two for the last decade. The idea of starting afresh is a tempting one, especially for young idealists who were only twelve years old at the origins of the crisis, when the yellow shirts first arrived on Bangkok’s streets in 2005. Some analysts have found this appealing too, arguing that the NDM present a viable third path as a way out of the country’s deadlock. This seems to not only underestimate how deeply polarized Thailand has become, but also to misunderstand where the NDM are positioning themselves. Whether it is their intention or not, criticizing the military and privy council and calling for a return to democracy aligns the new movement firmly with the Red Shirts and will draw the wrath of the far right royal-nationalists who support the military takeover. If such a thing as a middle ground exists in Thailand, the NDM are not standing on it.

Several factors militate against a student movement gaining ground in Thailand. Since the atrocity at Thammasat University in 1976, activism on campus has been practically non-existent. Student life has instead become increasingly militarized, as evidenced by the enforcement of uniforms and the controversial hazing rituals inflicted on freshmen. The student body is depoliticized and no longer has the institutional memory needed to facilitate a movement of any significance. Compounding this is the fact that students tend to be from more privileged sectors of society, particularly those attending elite universities such as Thammasat and Chulalongkorn. In the current climate, they are therefore more likely to fall on the opposite side of the political divide.

It has also been argued that the NDM’s non-affiliation with a political party is admirable and maintains their integrity. This may be true, but it also deprives them of important mobilization resources. Although the Red Shirt movement was ultimately unable to overcome the structural obstacles it faced, it was extremely successful at getting people out onto the street. The reasons for this can, in part, be attributed to its relationship with the Pheu Thai Party, which could assist with funding, organization at local and national level, communications infrastructure, skills, know-how and experience, as well as providing a host of well-known and charismatic protest leaders.

The Fly and the Cat

The students themselves seem to have a realistic appraisal of the role they play. In an interview in June, a well-known student activist from Khon Kaen described the NDM as being like a fly that disturbs a cat whilst it is eating, stopping it from enjoying its meal. The metaphor is clumsy sounding but describes the situation very well. Although the junta’s grip on the country seems secure for now, it would be a tragedy if they were left to rule without hindrance. The students are the only ones currently imposing any cost on them for their power-grab.

The metaphor also works because a fly is invulnerable to the swipes and bites of the cat, which may give us insight into the tactic of the student movement. Despite being arrested several times, no charges have yet been brought on any of them. The junta may have made a cost-benefit analysis that it is less trouble to let the students continue with their small protests than it would be to lock them up and face criticism both at home and abroad. By using their relative weakness to their advantage, the students are pushing the limits of what they can get away with.

However this strategy is not without its risks. The students should know that the “cat” they are irritating has very sharp claws indeed. The dominant military clique which now runs the country is from the 21st Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Queen’s Tigers.” Hardline general turned prime minster Prayuth Chan-o-cha is from this group, as is his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, who is often rumored to be the real power broker behind Prayuth. The “Eastern Tigers” faction, as they are sometimes known, are staunch royalists and played a central part in the brutal crackdown on Red Shirt protestors in 2010, which killed 86 unarmed civilians. Many of those died by single bullet wounds to the head, executed with deadly precision by military snipers. There should be no doubt about how ruthless this junta can be.

Another threat to the student group is from the military’s far right supporters. The royal-nationalist movement in its various guises – from the Yellow Shirts to the Thai flag-loving “whistle mob” – rejoiced when the army took control of the country last year. Signs in shop windows now declare “We Support the Thai Military” and khaki has become de rigueur in the capital. One popular army green t-shirt carries a yellow back print proclaiming “We are Citizens of the King” and can be seen all over the city. Although t-shirts declaring a love for the king have been common in Thailand for years, the choice of army color is new and points to the increasingly virulent marriage of royal-nationalism and militarism. There is a feeling that Thai society is lurching to the right in a way not seen since the Thammasat massacre in 1976. The recent anniversary of this tragedy should act as a timely reminder of how gravely exposed the students of New Democracy Movement might be to right wing mobs.

These dangers are real and the students should be commended for their bravery and sacrifice. Aggravating the junta reminds it that there is a price to be paid for seizing power and distracts it from some of its larger goals. The students’ actions also bring hope and inspiration for others. The outlook in Thailand is bleak at the moment but a larger movement lies waiting, hiding in plain sight. Insurgent consciousness is strong and organizational resources are still intact from previous outings. If the political opportunity presents itself then the conditions seem ripe for another mass mobilization which could be a serious challenge to the junta. Until that moment arrives, poking the tiger will have to suffice.

James Buchanan is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.