Give Thai youth movement a chance
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Give Thai youth movement a chance

A large number of students turn up at a rally at Democracy Monument in the capital organised by Free Youth on July 18.(Photo by  Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A large number of students turn up at a rally at Democracy Monument in the capital organised by Free Youth on July 18.(Photo by  Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

The coronavirus reprieve for the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is ironically over as Thailand's youth movement for political change has resumed in earnest.

When the virus pandemic peaked in March and April, it necessitated a hard-line government response that featured lockdowns and severe restrictions on public assembly and other civil liberties. The younger voices who had earlier called for change in flash mobs on campuses nationwide had no choice but to look after themselves and bide their time.

Now, they are back because local Covid-19 infections are under control, thanks to the government's Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA). Unless the unwavering demands of these young faces, mostly of university age, are recognised and accommodated, Thailand's political temperature will rise with heightened risks in the foreseeable future.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand, these young men and women wanted to take back a country they lost to two military coups and two constitutions amid polarisation, dysfunction and incompetence of the conservative ruling elites. The initial catalyst for their campus protests was the dubious dissolution in February of the Future Forward Party, which had offered a progressive platform against military control of civilian life in favour of structural reforms that could take Thailand forward into the 2020s and beyond. Millennials had formed Future Forward's core base of support that numbered more than 6.3 million votes in the March 2019 election, making it the third-largest party.

After more than four months into the Covid crisis, this young generation's aspirations and demands have coalesced into concrete and sequential calls for parliamentary dissolution, cessation of systemic rights violations and a new constitution. Their goals have been criticised for lacking coherence and logic. For example, dissolving parliament with new polls is a moot point unless the current 2017 constitution is amended or replaced. The direction and momentum of their movement are uncertain. Whether they can pile enough pressure for political change with new polls and a new constitution is a daunting proposition. While trying, they will most likely face more official harassment, legal persecution and unrelenting infringement of their basic rights.

Yet the narrative of Thailand's youth pervading student speeches and campus demonstrations will likely broaden and gain more traction. It runs roughly like this.

After telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra swept to power in 2001 and won re-election in 2005, his party machine ran up against established centres of power that had called the shots in the country during the Cold War decades, revolving around the military, palace, judiciary and sections of the bureaucracy. When Thaksin was overthrown by a coup in 2006, the younger voices of today were still in elementary and secondary schools, unperturbed and nonchalant at the spectre of another drama in their coup-prone country. And they were relatively impervious to the ensuing yellow versus red street demonstrations between the two sides, underpinned by judicial interventions that upended two Thaksin-aligned political parties.

When the follow-up coup took place in 2014, this time against Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thai millennials began to take notice. Along with many older Thais who were fed up with back-and-forth street demonstrations and coups, the younger generation and others who grew tired of endless protests initially gave Gen Prayut's junta government a chance.

But five years after it seized power, the Prayut-led military government brought Thailand to a standstill. Annual growth slowed from 5.3% in 2001-06 to 3% in 2014-19. Repression was rife. As the military's top brass and their civilian allies took complete control, nepotism and graft reared its ugly head. The few junta-appointed technocrats were not up to scratch.

As Thailand became a laggard in Asean, regional peers, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, motored ahead. Beyond incompetence, the ruling generals' worst crime was to cook up, through proxies, the 2017 constitution that gave the military a one-third parliamentary quota.

Yet the students went along until they saw that Thailand was going nowhere. Some 13.7% of eligible voters in the March 2019 general election comprised first-timers who saw how the junta's five years of absolute power had squandered Thailand's chance to move ahead. With Thailand's median age at 38 and one third of the 70-million population under 35, these millennials led the charge in charting a way forward.

It is tempting to write off Thailand's new protests and dissent among its young population. After all, the Prayut government has military backing and parliamentary control. In the past, street protests only created the potential but never led directly to a change of government.

Only in October 1973 and May 1992 did street demonstrations among students and Bangkok's middle class lay the conditions for political change but these two cathartic overthrows of military rule were only possible with royal intervention to promote peace and stability. Over the past two decades, only street demonstrations with implicit backing from the conservatives-military alliance succeeded in wresting control of government.

But Thailand's political environment is now fundamentally different. In past coups and crises since the 1950s, the Thai economy always expanded at a brisk pace. For example, in 1960-97, GDP growth averaged 6% per year but declined to 4% annually in 2000-19. The pandemic-induced economic doldrums in the near future will exacerbate political combustibility.

Moreover, when push came to shove in the past, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, who reigned for 70 years from 1946, was so respected for his developmental efforts that his moral authority and role became the institutional backstop to restore stability and unity. This set of circumstances is different today.

Finally, the student movement this time is empowered by profound communication technologies that have allowed young people to rise up and speak out in an organic fashion. This movement may be Bangkok-centred but it has fanned out across the country. Unsurprisingly, the students' common grievance is the "future" they lost during a military-dominated era when Thailand was left behind in its neighbourhood and when their career prospects and future livelihoods became bleak.

These millennials and others want Thailand's future back and will do whatever is necessary to get it. As tensions mount, Thailand will either find a new constitutional balance that subsumes the military, monarchy and judiciary within it or end up with longer-term authoritarian rule and economic stagnation. Listening to these young voices and making concessions and compromises with them is better than putting everything on the line with a winner-takes-all response.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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