ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Protesters Want the World to Know #WhatsHappeningInThailand

Social media has played an important role in attracting international attention to the movement’s struggle for reform.

By Jake Black for
Thailand’s Protesters Want the World to Know #WhatsHappeningInThailand

Pro-democracy activists march close to Government House, the prime minister’s offices during a protest march in Bangkok on October 21, 2020.

Credit: Associated Press/Sakchai Lalit

A recent escalation in the tensions between Thailand’s student-led protest movement and its military-backed government has generated concern about potential further clashes if a compromise is not reached soon. Protest leaders have been taking to social media in an effort to bring international attention to their struggle as their movement grapples with challenging new circumstances.

Activists have increasingly been publishing content in English and other languages – including Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean – across various social media platforms, using hashtags like #WhatsHappeningInThailand, in an attempt to garner international support and put pressure on the Thai authorities to refrain from using violence against protesters.

Such hashtags have been used by the activists for several months now, but their use increased sharply after a police crackdown on October 16, when water cannon were used against protesters defying newly imposed state of emergency measures. These scenes marked a significant escalation by police, who had largely refrained from interfering in protests since the movement began earlier this year.

The movement initially saw protesters expressing their frustration with the government, but its scope grew in August when some activists began calling for reform of the monarchy, a demand that has since been taken up by the movement more broadly. Discussion of the monarchy has long been a taboo topic in Thailand, where a lese-majeste law criminalizes criticism of the royal family, carrying prison sentences of up to 15 years.

The latest escalation began with a planned demonstration on October 14, when, in extraordinary scenes, a royal motorcade passed through an area in which protesters were gathered. As the motorcade drove through the crowd, protesters raised a three-fingered salute – a symbol of defiance against authoritarianism adopted from the “Hunger Games” franchise – and reportedly shouted criticisms at the passing cars. The motorcade was carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn, but not King Maha Vajiralongkorn (although he was present in a different motorcade earlier in the day that did not encounter protesters).

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The October 14 protests were especially symbolic, as the date marked the 47th anniversary of a 1973 student-led uprising, which ultimately saw the downfall of the military government of Thanom Kittikachorn.

The confrontation was the first time since the movement began that protesters had faced the royal family in such a direct way, in large part due to  Vajiralongkorn residing primarily in Germany – a fact that has drawn significant ire from activists – and returning to Thailand only for short visits.

The scene was illustrative of just how successful activists have been in shifting the narrative about the royal family in Thailand. While criticism of the royal family was once the domain of a small handful of outspoken activists – many living in exile for fear of retribution – large numbers of young Thais are now voicing their displeasure about the power and prerogatives of the monarchy. Such open and widespread expressions of discontent would have been virtually unthinkable during the reign of Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.

The government cited the confrontation as one of its justifications for imposing the new state of emergency measures, which banned gatherings of five or more people, allowed authorities to designate areas which people are prohibited from entering, and proscribed the publication of news or other media “that could create fear or intentionally distort information.” These measures came in addition to existing state of emergency measures imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 22, after failing to quell the protests, the state of emergency was rescinded.

While the emergency decree was in effect, however, police cleared protesters gathered outside Government House, arresting a number of activists, including two protest leaders – Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, and Parit Chirawak, a university student better known by his nickname, “Penguin.” Later in the day, livestreamed video showed police arresting a third protest leader, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, nickname “Rung,” a university student noted for reading out a 10-point manifesto for reform of the monarchy at a protest on August 10.

Despite the brief imposition of new state of emergency measures, the arrests of several prominent protest leaders, and the police crackdown on October 16, activists have remained defiant, returning to the streets every day since the latest measures were imposed. They have even adopted tactics from Hong Kong’s recent pro-democracy protest movement, wearing hard hats and goggles, and forming human chains to distribute umbrellas, in anticipation of a repeat of the incident involving water cannon.

In the wake of that crackdown on October 16, the #WhatsHappeningInThailand hashtag was inundated with images and videos of protesters defending themselves against the jets of water, as well as information about the latest escalation in a number of languages. The crackdown also prompted a number of Thai celebrities to insert themselves into the discussion, some for the first time.

Amanda Obdam, a Thai-Canadian model and the current Miss Universe Thailand, posted photos of the crackdown on Instagram, her caption containing a bold message to police (in both Thai and English): “Your job is to protect the people not harm them.” Nichkhun Horvejkul, a Thai-American K-pop star, condemned the violence in a tweet (in Thai) posted after the crackdown. Maria Poonlertlarp, a Thai-Swedish model and former holder of the title of Miss Universe Thailand, even reposted multi-language material produced by activists, along with a direct appeal for international support (in English): “To my friends around the world… we hope you hear us because our government does not.”

The willingness of Thai celebrities to join the online criticism of the authorities is indicative of the overall level of discontent with the current state of affairs in Thailand. By deciding to speak out, they are potentially jeopardizing lucrative relationships with Thailand’s business empires, many of which traditionally support the monarchy – and, by extension, the military, which has long positioned itself as a defender of the royal family.

Thai activists’ use of social media is nothing new – the “Milk Tea Alliance” is an online pro-democracy solidarity movement created earlier this year by activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand – but it has taken on a new level of importance in the challenging environment created by the latest escalation.

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The Thai government seems to recognize its importance, however, as reports this week pointed to a plan to block the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Separately, police said they had ordered the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society to restrict the Telegram channel of Free Youth, one of the major groups behind the protest movement.

But activists have already demonstrated their resilience in the face of previous government attempts to neutralize their social media presence. In late August, Facebook took down “Royalist Marketplace,” a group for discussions about the monarchy with more than one million members, after the Thai government threatened legal action. A replacement group appeared soon after, with more than half a million people joining within 24 hours of its creation.

The hope is that by utilizing social media to organize protests at short notice and draw international attention to their struggle, the activists can boost their resilience, both online and on the streets, and show the government that the world is not only watching, but supporting, the protest movement.

Thailand’s student-led activists may have succeeded in shifting discussion of the monarchy from a taboo to a subject of mainstream discussion, but even with the withdrawal of the state of emergency decree, the government is unlikely to concede their demands without a struggle. Activists are responding to this challenge by reaching out for international support on social media and adapting to the evolving circumstances. While it remains to be seen what the protest movement will look like from this time forward, one thing is clear: the government has thus far failed to dispel the activists’ anger – and that is not simply going to disappear.

Jake Black is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, having recently completed a Master of International Relations degree with a strong focus on the Asia-Pacific region.