Thai political order being contested
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Thai political order being contested

Students stage a pro-democracy rally in front of Education Ministry in the capital on Wednesday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Students stage a pro-democracy rally in front of Education Ministry in the capital on Wednesday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

It has happened every time in contemporary Thai politics since the 1970s. When genuine dissent takes place against the established political order, incumbent centres of power strike back with all the means at their disposal. Each time in the past, they prevailed. This time, as political storm clouds gather again, similar campaigns and tactics are in motion to suppress dissent. Yet the final outcome may be profoundly different compared to the past.

Nearly half a century ago, many thousands of young Thais protested in the streets of Bangkok successfully against a dictatorship, dislodging an entrenched military regime associated with repression, corruption and nepotism. That same regime soon recovered and pushed back against the student-led progressive movement, culminating with a conservative-royalist backlash against young Thais who were maimed and killed in October 1976, many fleeing to remote jungles to carry on their fight.

Quelling what was a rebellion against the status quo at the time succeeded largely because of the threat of communist expansionism. The military, monarchy and bureaucracy from the old order were able to draw on international support during the Cold War and the lack of a critical mass of opposition and resistance to win the day, restoring peace and stability in favour of incumbent institutions.

The May 1991-92 coup and crisis, when street demonstrations were met with violent suppression backed by the military, did not really challenge the existing political order. One side dominated by civilians and Bangkok's middle class wanted to boot out a disguised military dictatorship that manipulated party politics to maintain power through the polls. In the end, the military lost but traditional institutions of power and authority were not at risk.

The next round of challenges against the established order transpired over the past two decades, revolving around the rise and resilience of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party machine. Every time, Thaksin's proxies parties under three different banners won elections in February 2005, December 2007, and July 2011, but they were eventually forced out, first by a military coup in September 2006, judicial intervention in December 2008, and another putsch in May 2014. The yellow shirts were foot soldiers who paved the way for these military and judicial interventions, whereas the red shirts became the rebels who wanted popular representation through their preferred political parties.

While they were hounded by conflicts of interest and graft allegations, Thaksin's parties became so successful that they became a threat. Popular representation, where voters choose elected representatives to rule, starkly contrasted with unelected moral authority stemming from the immense popularity and public respect for the late King Rama IX who had reigned for 70 years. As long as Thailand's political party system remained fractious and weak, moral authority could play a paramount and decisive role in times of crisis. But such moral authority may be specific to the late monarch. Herein lies Thailand's current predicament.

At issue in Thailand's brewing crisis today is who gets to rule the day, and how. Thailand's young generation, predominantly in their 20s and teenage years, want to restart the political process and democratic system by resetting the rules through a new constitution. Those who rule should derive their legitimacy from popular representation and public accountability, not a rigged constitution that keeps the military in power indefinitely. Young Thais today, who have seen the back-and-forth military and judicial interventions alternating with coups, new constitutions in 2007 and 2017, and elections through the March 2019 poll, are the new challengers to the status quo and how power and authority are located and exercised.

Had the established political order and incumbent centres of power provided a promising and viable future for Thailand after the May 2014 coup, it is very conceivable that young Thais could have been accommodated and appeased. What they want is a simple future and a way ahead. They are not getting that because the military-backed regime led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, both before and after the March 2019 poll, has led Thailand into a cul de sac of long-term economic stagnation and political repression. It is thus hard to blame young Thais for wanting reform and change because Thailand's political order that was suited to the Cold War decades is utterly outdated today.

Unsurprisingly, conservative-royalist columns, especially the army, police and other security agencies that have much to lose, are at it again with smear campaigns, trumped-up charges and arbitrary arrests, violating basic rights and freedoms like they were still fighting the communists. These authorities and their supporters and sympathisers deny and dismiss young Thais' genuine grievances. They seem to believe that arresting the ring leaders and intimidating the rank-and-file among the young will get the job done just like in the past.

But 20 is the new 30 in Thailand today. Thanks to advancing media technologies, those who are currently in their teens and early 20s consume information and reach awareness levels much broader than their analogue predecessors decades earlier. Coming of age in the 2010s enables awareness and consciousness levels that were unavailable and even unthinkable just 30-40 years ago.

So we will hear more and more from older conservatives who will say that the students are being put up to it, that they are ill-informed, lacking appreciation for Thai history and so forth. We will hear right-wing types go on and on about what is wrong about Thailand's youth movement for political change and reform.

What we will not hear from conservative-royalist folks is how much of a mess the Prayut-led regime has made of Thailand's economy, society and politics. Thailand's economy faces hard times for years to come, its society is as polarised and divided as ever, and its politics are rigged and manipulated to ensure the same incumbent regime stays in power for years on end.

No wonder young Thais want to put a stop to this rot and remake the country into a place they can have a future in -- long after the 60-, 70-, and 80-somethings who are going after them have passed on.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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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