Thai Students Face Endgame in Protests

Protests slip into uncharted territory, but they aren’t going away

A tipping point is nearing in the student demonstrations and protests that have wracked Bangkok for weeks, and are now spreading to other parts of Thailand. On October 15, the prime minister, former military leader and 2014 coup instigator Prayuth Chan-ocha, with his cabinet standing behind him, declared an emergency decree forbidding the assembly of groups of more than five people.

That hasn’t deterred student groups which have continued to protest, reassembling on Bangkok’s streets over the weekend. This time uniformed riot police and water cannons met them, spraying them down with chemical-laced water. But rather than fizzling out, Prayuth’s strong words and strong-arm actions of the police have increased the students’ resolve and spurred momentum. More students and Bangkok youth attended the protests on Sunday night than anytime since the protests began.

With no outlet for their grievances, including over their strait-jacketed education, students have appeared almost spontaneously over the last two months with flash mob protests, marches, and demonstrations. The police have rounded up more than 75 student leaders so far, only allowing two out on restricted bail conditions.

However, this has not deterred the student movement, which has been described as a leaderless organically developing group by commentators. Their flash mob strategy led by a decentralized leadership moving protest across Bangkok is enabling students from many universities and secondary schools to supplement numbers each night. Some of the venues are attracting the general population as participants as well, with a frustrated former intelligence officer telling Asia Sentinel that youth are now slaves of SKYNET (social media) and follow without thinking.

Originally, the students demanded the dismissal of Prayuth and his cabinet, the redrawing of a more democratic constitution, new elections, and a reversion to a constitutional monarchy that exercised minimal powers. However, with the antics of the absentee king Maha Vajiralongkorn, or King Rama X, now shown openly on social media, and given his silence during the Covid crisis, a subliminal republican sentiment is creeping in on some corners of the student movement.

Students have kept out of the political scene for more than five decades – since 1976, which ultimately led to the police and army moving into the area where students were protesting at Thammasat University with military weapons, arresting 3,000 protesters and killing officially 46 and wounding 167, although unofficial figures were much higher.

With elected politicians doing nothing more than criticizing the government through points of order in the parliament and with the red shirt movement a beaten force through purging the general population of supporters over the initial years following the 2014 coup, there has been no organized group willing to stand up to the regime over abuses of power, corruption, mismanagement, and the curtailing of free speech and democracy.

Demonstrations across Bangkok and a number of provinces are now spreading to many professionals and academics who are beginning to throw their support behind the students in the form of food, equipment, and money as well as open backing. Although the media has repeatedly been warned not to cover the protests, some stations are live streaming from the streets for the nation to see.

The government order to stop BTS Skytrain and MRT Blueline train services has inconvenienced many commuters and businesses which have found it difficult to survive through the Covid-19 restrictions, which have been interpreted by opponents as a method of keeping the students in line. This, along with police refusing an ambulance’s transit through the protest area, has backfired with a patient’s death.

Tension will increase over the next week in Bangkok. There is great uncertainty about what the government will do. Prayuth’s personal position as prime minister is now under great threat, no matter what happens. He is well aware of the power of street protests. It was the Peoples’ Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that demanded former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation back in 2014. Respect and quasi-religious reverence for the monarchy have taken a massive dive, and an institution that was once thought to be above any public scrutiny is heading into uncharted territory.

The student movement has put the whole question of the ruling elite class under intense scrutiny, which is becoming more difficult to publicly defend. Underlying class divides are serious economic issues which need attention. Wealth concentration among the elite who are protected by political power in the face of widespread poverty are now major issues. The Prayuth regime’s policies are being blamed for widening the gap.

The royalist establishment will staunchly defend their position, no matter how untenable, as there is a lot to lose. The threat of two years jail for those who take selfies at demonstrations and publicize anti-government rallies, is a growing sign of the regime’s desperation, along with continued arrests of activists and the closure of student-related websites such as Telegram app. A number of media outlets have been closed including Prachathai, the Reporters and The Standard, as well as VoiceTV, which is owned by the son of exiled-former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. These moves by the regime are counterintuitive, just increasing the resolve of the students and widening sympathy and support.

Although the government is softening its position and attempting to use the parliament to find a solution to the protests, this appears too little, too late, and totally irrelevant to the students on the streets. There is little respect for a parliament that has been skewed towards the government, and politicians who have demonstrably failed the people. Even opposition voices calling on the floor of the lower house for Prayuth’s resignation are be lost as theatre.

There are grave concerns that although the protests have been very peaceful to date, heavy-handed government tactics could lead to tragic results. Rumors of another coup are circulating, as are rumors of Prayuth’s pending resignation.

Indeed there have been growing calls for him to quit from different sections of the community, and anger from media groups including the National Press Council, News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, and the Thai Journalists Association as well as academics angered by government media censorship in the name of national security. More than a thousand doctors petitioned the government against using chemical-laced water on the protesters for health and safety reasons. One doctor was arrested and later released on bail, while another was sacked from his job for signing the petition. A number of political and social activists, along with Pheu Thai MPs are petitioning the courts to revoke the emergency decree. Even the usually pro-government media is becoming critical of Prayuth’s performance as prime minister

There are a number of ways and scenarios this could play out.

1. Protests fizzle out and the government chases student leaders

The regime’s current strategy (or hope) is that the protests will eventually lose momentum and participation numbers will dwindle. This hinges on the students not getting support or being joined by others from the general Thai community. This is why the government is censoring the media. It requires great patience on the part of the government. However, the government would also face harsh criticism for looking inept and impotent as the protests continue. Being patient would severely put Prayuth’s tenure under threat.

The movement appears to show no sign of dwindling. Student protestors are being joined by their secondary school counterparts, boosting numbers in the areas they are choosing to protest in. Time gives an opportunity for other groups to join the cause. This will certainly be the case if the regime makes any mistakes through the use of force, which may cause casualties.

Students are receiving money through crowd funding and donations of food and equipment. Hong Kong protesters through the #Milkteaalliance, along with some of the old guard Thai protesters from the protests of 10 years ago are advising the students on tactics. Arrests are not weakening the organization as it is run collectively. Students are using voting apps to decide if they will go out and protest on each day.

2. The protests go on until on there is a showdown replaying the 1976 massacre

This is Thailand’s worst nightmare. With hardliner royalists in control, and the institution of the monarchy perceived to be under threat, there is all likelihood of confrontation. If riot equipment is used, this would no doubt lead to violent clashes, as there are plenty within the Thai populace who want the opportunity to fight. With the sheer numbers on the streets over the last couple of days, police action would be difficult. So far, all protests have been peaceful, with the only violence after riot police charged a student barricade and sprayed them with chemically laced water.

Any paramilitary action aimed to bring fear runs the risk of inciting the remnants of Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt movement, with almost two million sympathizers already residing in Bangkok. Any event which sparks violence and strong retaliation is extremely dangerous, which could potentially end in a bloodbath like October 6, 1976.

3. Prayuth is sacrificed

This is looking more likely. There have long been rumors that Prayuth would be replaced by the former head of the armed forces and stanch royalist Apirat Kongsompong. This would probably be totally unacceptable now with a civilian being the only possible way to appease the student movement. Certainly, the removal of Prayuth wouldn’t be enough, there would have to be assurances that the constitution is completely redrafted, with the king’s powers regulated by the constitution.

4. Another coup

There has long been talk of another coup. The army could roll out troops and tanks during the day when students are not out, to secure the city. This would likely lead to resistance, but would maintain the power of the elite and monarchy. This would mean another junta, controlled firmly by the King, ousting Prayuth and his government. Newly appointed defense chief General Charleroi Srisawasdi insisted on Monday that the military would keep out of Thai politics.

5. King advocates (or appoints a regent) in favor of his sister and retires overseas.

This is a scenario that would have been strongly dismissed until last weekend. If the government were to lose control, the King would continue to come under much more criticism, especially if no response to demands comes forward from the King, himself. It would take almost total anarchy in Thailand to make this scenario happen. However, the future of the monarchy is more dependent on government reaction to the protest movement, than what the protesters do.

Under this extreme situation, the only way to save the monarchy would be for King Rama X to either advocate or appoint Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn as reigning regent, and retire in Bavaria. Such as move would be popular both with the Thai elite class and general population. This scenario is extremely unlikely, but not impossible, subject to a new constitution.

Finally, a couple of issues could relate to the above scenarios. Although the top ranks of the military are totally loyal to King Rama X, the extent of enlisted ranks loyalty is not guaranteed. The Manila scenario in 1986, in which sections of the military defected to the anti-Marcos forces tipped the balance back then, leading to Corazon Aquino becoming president of the Philippines. Harsh action ordered against students on Bangkok streets is a situation which might well test rank and file loyalty.

The other scenario is that the student protests could inspire the general population, particularly the remnants of the red shirts who have scores to settle, to join the protests. That should be keeping the elites awake at night.

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