ASEAN Beat

The Generational Challenge for Thailand’s Generals

While Thailand’s coup leader remains premier, the polls unleashed new democratic sentiments that the regime now struggles to silence.

Preeti Jha
The Generational Challenge for Thailand’s Generals
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Weeks after the March election, the plainclothes officers that had become a familiar sight on college campuses under military rule were back at Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand’s northeast.

“Things should have changed. But they came with an identical message” to five years ago, said political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich about a second visit from the special branch police last week. “They were quite confident they could keep politicians in check. But they are very worried about universities and students.”

Their visit was perhaps spurred by photos shared on social media by high school students in another northern province last week. Through playful art displays, part of an annual teacher appreciation day, they had critiqued coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s appointment as premier earlier in June, after a flawed election and delays in releasing official results. Soldiers and police ordered the students to delete the images the same day.

Heavy-handed responses to even the mildest of criticism have been a defining feature of a junta that routinely threatened and prosecuted opponents since seizing power in 2014; a move it defended as necessary to end long-drawn and sometimes violent street protests that rocked Bangkok before the coup.

“Nothing has changed. But now Thailand is whitewashed by an election,” said Titipol, among the hundreds of Thais including academics and activists whom the military often summoned for “attitude adjustments.”

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The junta has worked systematically to root out dissent — it banned all political activity until three months before the election, oversaw the passing of a new constitution engineered to keep the military powerful, and handpicked the entire upper house of parliament, which has a key role in choosing the prime minister.

When it finally called an election, after years of postponements, the stage was seemingly set for a victory by the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party. Yet in the end the generals still failed to crush Pheu Thai, the party aligned to their nemesis, Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular ex-prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup. Worse still, the ballot gave rise to a formidable new foe in the Future Forward Party, which polled third on a progressive, liberal, and decidedly anti-junta platform.

The unexpected success of the youth-oriented MPs appears to have intensified the military’s focus on young Thais and the power they can wield at the ballot box. Voters aged 18-35 made up around a quarter of the roughly 50 million strong electorate and of these 7 million were first-time voters in Thailand’s first general election in eight years.

“The elites didn’t take young people seriously,” said Aim Sinpeng, a political scientist at the University of Sydney whose research focuses on digital politics in Southeast Asia. “They spent all this money and time trying to thwart Pheu Thai. And then you got this brand new threat in Future Forward,” she added.

Winning the Youth Vote

Launched only last year by charismatic young businessman-turned-politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Future Forward rode high on the support of young Thais. It surprised even itself by winning 81 seats in parliament on a slate of first-time candidates. Though it benefited from the junta’s last-minute disbanding of another Thaksin-allied party, Thai Raksa Chart, its success was also widely seen as a rejection of junta rule.

The party put young people and social media at the heart of their election strategy, a move that paid off. Sinpeng’s research has shown how it “cultivated relationships with potential voters” — entirely unlike other politicians in Southeast Asia who used social media “like TV, talking but not engaging.”

She also found the party reached out to teens not yet old enough to vote in the hope they could mobilize their parents. “Future Forward voters in the northern provinces said their children told them this was the party for their generation. Believing their children to be better educated, they listened,” she said.

This new cohort of voters, mobilized on the ideology of democracy, has made the junta very nervous. Shortly after the polls it filed charges, including sedition, against Thanathorn, accusing him of helping anti-coup protesters back in 2015. In a second blow the opposition leader was last month suspended as an MP pending an investigation into allegations he broke election rules. Thanathorn, who now faces potential jail and disqualification from politics, has denied all charges as “politically motivated.”

Another attack against the opposition emerged last week when Future Forward’s chief spokesperson, Pannika Wanich, became the target of an online hate campaign after an MP from the pro-military party and self-designated royalists accused her of insulting the monarchy based on old Facebook photos. Police haven’t filed charges but are thought to be investigating the case.

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“It’s a witch hunt. Progressive politicians have frequently been accused of being anti-monarchy,” said the new MP in a telephone interview from Bangkok. She said her party’s priority was to “build a politics of hope and change.” Thailand has a long history of pro-military politicians using the country’s draconian lese majeste law as a tool to stifle opponents.

New Era for the Thai Democracy Fight

With a single election, Future Forward has upended the longstanding schism in Thailand’s politics that pits royalist, pro-army supporters known as “yellow shirts” against the “red shirt” supporters of Thaksin, loved for pro-poor policies in the country’s rural north but derided by many middle-class, urban Thais as a populist.

The battle lines have been redrawn but it’s still the same decades-old fight to restore democracy. Key to returning democratic norms will be reform of the constitution and unelected upper house, said Puanagthong Pawakapan, associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Prayut is still popular and won more votes than many were expecting. So the opposition will have to work hard to win popular support for reform,” she said.

Campaigners also have to operate within a climate of growing “systematic violence,” according to rights groups. “We are seeing rising numbers of violent attacks against democracy activists, often by masked attackers, since the election. But there have been no arrests,” said Anon Chawalawan from iLaw, a Bangkok-based legal monitoring group.

It fears the junta is more aggressively pursuing activists who fled political persecution after the coup. Two dissidents that had escaped to Laos were brutally murdered by unknown assailants late last year, their bodies found disemboweled and stuffed with concrete in the Mekong River. At least four other activists have disappeared, with three thought to have been extradited from Hanoi to Bangkok in May. Thai authorities deny any knowledge of the cases.

It’s clear that the road to full democracy will be a long one. Junta rule is unlikely to be officially lifted until Prayut forms a cabinet and groups such as iLaw and TLHR are still campaigning for it to revoke repressive military-approved laws as well as transfer civilian cases being tried in military courts to civil ones.

The years it may take to bring reform show just how important it is to keep young people engaged, said Future Forward’s Pannika. “What we’re afraid of most is that people will lose faith and hope in politics because they think they can’t fix it,” said Pannika. “We want to trigger a cultural change.”