From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ex-Student Protesters Prepare for Thailand’s Election

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From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ex-Student Protesters Prepare for Thailand’s Election

Once at the forefront of the youthful protests against PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, activists weigh in on the stakes of the upcoming polls.

From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ex-Student Protesters Prepare for Thailand’s Election

Pro-democracy supporters display the three-finger symbol of resistance during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

For Get Surariddhidhamrong, joining the mass protests that swept Thailand in 2020 was a watershed moment. The 24-year-old, currently enrolled at the Faculty of Law at Navamindradhiraj University in Bangkok, recalls first getting involved with political campaigns on social media, mainly Facebook and Instagram, before choosing to step up and volunteer to guard the in-person protests in the capital. “During the first wave [of protests], demands largely focused on consolidating the democratic process, but we also wanted to emphasize the need to safeguard human rights,” he told The Diplomat.

The large-scale mobilization, sparked by the dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party, which placed third in the general election of 2019, spanned four waves of protests from February 2020 to July 2021 and made international headlines, bringing into the global spotlight the protesters’ demands for democracy, as well as the aggressive pushback from the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Yean, who asked that she be referred to only by her nickname, enrolled as an undergraduate student at Chulalongkorn University at the time, remembers the degree of suppression unleashed during a protest held at Siam, Bangkok’s upscale shopping district: “[We were making our way] past Siam Discovery when the police shut down the intersection down to MBK Center, then opened the water cannons to disperse the crowd,” she said. “We started running toward Ratchaprasong, genuinely scared for our lives.”

Nearly three years later, the bustling Siam area has seemingly returned to normal as the beating heart of downtown Bangkok, and while protests have died down, the country is now preparing for its upcoming general election. Set for May 14 following the dissolution of Parliament by Prayut earlier this month, the general election will be the first since the 2020-2021 protests, leaving the door open to a hopeful democratic consolidation, or further consolidation of control by Thailand’s conservative elites.

The run-up to the election has been marked by the internal divisions within the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), resulting in the creation of the United Thai Nation Party (UTNP). At the start of the year, Prayut joined the UTNP, leaving the PPRP in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

Among their main opponents is the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), considered one of the main opposition parties in Thailand, and led by political newcomer Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and niece of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, both of whom were deposed by military coups, in Yingluck’s case by Prayut himself in 2014.

In a December 2022 poll conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok, PTP was ranked as the preferred political party for 34 percent of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, with UTNP scoring less than 5 percent. The gap significantly narrows when it comes to leadership preference, with Prayut being the preferred choice of 25.5 percent of respondents in a Super Poll survey released in March, close behind Paetongtarn, who commanded the support of 28.5 percent.

Yean cites the monarchy as the main factor behind Prayut’s lasting popularity in Thailand today: “Most people have grown tired of [Prayut’s] economic mismanagement, but will continue to vote for him so long as he gets the support from the King,” she said. The Thai monarchy remains one of the most powerful and revered in the world, and is the only constitutional monarchy that upholds lese-majeste, which makes criticism of the royal family a criminal offense.

The revocation of the law, Section 112 of the Thai criminal code, has become one of the focal points of the student movement, especially since late 2021, when the authorities began charging dozens of student protest leaders and participants with lese-majeste. According to the legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 233 people currently face charges of royal defamation, many for involvement in the 2020-2021 protests.

Get Surariddhidhamrong situated the 2020-2021 protests in this context. “Political viability relies on the monarchy, which makes it harder for political parties to seek a platform independent from monarchical approval,” he said, adding that “the people must rise up against this and drive this change so that political parties can take the next steps.”

Although activists highlight the movement’s success in bringing attention to the many issues that have characterized the Prayut administration since the 2014 coup, ranging from a decline in human rights and political freedoms to the government’s COVID-19 response and the stagnant economy, results are mixed when it comes to the political traction of the protests.

Yean, who has since moved to Singapore to pursue graduate studies, noticed a decline in political interest from the Thai diaspora: “For those of us [who attended the protests], police repression was very brutal and scary. Ultimately, it became dissuasive.” Similarly, Get draws attention to the many protesters who were arrested during police crackdowns. “Dozens of protesters are still in jail for taking part in the movement, and there has been little to no attention from traditional media nor political parties to address the issue or plan their release,” he said.

Sirabhob Attohi, a student at Chulalongkorn University and protest organizer during the 2020-2021 student movement, echoes these concerns, citing Prayut’s strategy of fear and violence to suppress dissent as the main reason behind the decline of protests. Sirabhob rose to the forefront of the movement during the second wave of protests, as the lead organizer of the LGBTQ+-led protest in July 2020.

“It was very important for us to situate the democracy movement in a broader queer liberation context,” they explained. Sirabhob cites the LGBTQ+ protest as they shifted from politically engaged to activist and joined the Free People youth group. “We felt hope that political change was possible, and there was a sense of nostalgia drawing from previous generations’ mobilization,” Sirabhob explained, referring to the other large-scale protests that have marked Thailand’s political history, including the Red Shirt movement of 2006, and the Thammasat University revolt of 1973.

While Sirabhob acknowledges that the movement’s demands were not addressed by the government, they also point out to the crucial role played by the protests in introducing Thai youths to the country’s decades-old democracy movement: “Many of us were too young when the Red Shirts protests started, or even during the 2010 protests. In this sense, this was our generation’s awakening, it helped us realize we can strive to demand better for our democracy and our society.”

As the election nears and with the campaign period set to begin soon, the young queer activist also emphasizes the need for political parties to connect with youths and the student movement. “Some political parties, such as Pheu Thai, understand that young people can be the voice of change, they encourage us to become watchdogs of the election, and they’re actively reaching out to young voters who have become disillusioned with Thai politics,” they said.

Sirabhob also cited the outcome of the controversial 2019 election, which was largely denounced as a skewed race in favor of Prayut, as a key factor behind students’ disillusionment with electoral politics in the country. “As activists, we have to get students to come out to vote to contribute to the democratic process, and make sure they remain politically active,” they said.

For other activists, however, the current political offer remains unable to address the most pressing issues facing Thailand’s fragile democracy today. “The rule of law needs to be restored before youths can trust the government again, and this can only be addressed through structural change,” Get said.

Yean noted a similar lack of structural policy reforms in the current parties’ platforms. “Most of them focus on the economy and increasing wages, but don’t address how they plan on facilitating such changes,” she said. She also added to Get’s concerns about the rule of law in the country, citing a “lack of checks and balances in Thailand’s judicial system, which needs to be addressed if we want to improve stability and transparency.”

With the start of the campaign period in Thailand, several political parties have already started touring the country to drum up support for their platforms, and mobilizing the country’s youths will undeniably become a key strategy. For Sirabhob, this election will prove how committed the student movement is to the future of the democracy movement.

“Getting us to vote is just one step of the process. We need the youths to get out there and express our voice through the ballot, but the election is not the end goal,” they said. “After the election, we have to keep working hard, with or without the support from political parties, to achieve the society we want to live in.”

This piece has been updated with the announced date of Thailand’s election.