Why Thai student movement can't exist

Why Thai student movement can't exist

Student activists from Kasetsart, Bangkok, Silpakorn and Rangsit universities give an art performance themed, 'Because everyone is a protest leader' at City Hall earlier this month. (Photo by Varuth Hirunyatheb)
Student activists from Kasetsart, Bangkok, Silpakorn and Rangsit universities give an art performance themed, 'Because everyone is a protest leader' at City Hall earlier this month. (Photo by Varuth Hirunyatheb)

Thailand's new round of political confrontation in the 21st century -- the first under a new reign -- is showing signs of déjà vu with fundamentally different dynamics. Earlier rounds of the Thai drama from 2005 to 2014 went through three major acts, each beginning with an election, followed by a problematic government and street demonstrations, ending with military or judicial interventions. Even though its electoral allies lost in these three polls, the pro-establishment side won each time it went onto the streets citing the monarchy as legitimacy and moral authority.

This time, the forces of the status quo revolving around the military, monarchy, judiciary and bureaucracy are at it again. But this time their primary opponent is not the political party machine of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its associated "red-shirt" supporters and voter bases in the North and Northeast. Instead, a broad-based and organic youth movement on myriad campuses in high schools and universities across the country is knocking on the door and challenging the established centres of power to reform and modernise.

Instead of acknowledging the younger generation on its own merits for its grievances and calls for political change and trying to find ways towards compromise and reconciliation, the response from incumbent institutions of Thailand's traditional political order has been to dismiss, deny and disassemble the new protest movement. The main methods of putting down and undermining the protesting youths are to destabilise and demonise them by all means available. It is instructive to look at some of these ways and means of denial and marginalisation that are reminiscent of earlier confrontation rounds.

The most charitable takedown of the student movement is to portray it as misguided and uninformed precisely because it is full of young people in their late teens and early 20s. Being so young means they must lack knowledge of Thai history and its traditional institutions. The students have rebutted that they know sufficient Thai history through empowering and awakening media technologies, enough to want to shift its course.

Together with this the accusation of insufficient historical knowledge is that the students must have been brainwashed by social media, especially Twitter. Surely, cyberspace and social media have misled young Thais into misunderstanding their country and elders. From their comments on social media, student reactions to this view often involve laugher because they think the real brainwashing through educational indoctrination and media socialisation took place in the 1960s-80s when they had not yet been born.

Another common insinuation is that disaffected young Thais are being put up to it, with money being paid and strings being pulled from behind by a masterminding puppet master. Surely, these young minds cannot think on their own or come up with grievances and controversial demands for change. Someone must be ultimately benefiting from these protests, as the students must be mere pawns. The go-to for blame in the recent past was Thaksin, and lately it has been Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the Future Forward Party, a parliamentary vehicle of young Thais which was hastily dissolved earlier this year. Yet student leaders and stage speakers have hardly praised either Thaksin or Mr Thanathorn. They look to be fighting their own fight and making their own struggle.

So it must be the foreigners who are inciting the Thais to hate each other. Surely, these student protests must be the handiwork of the US government, with its age-old invasive and intervening tentacles around the world. The US must want to keep Thailand away from China because the post-coup Thai government has leaned towards Beijing.

Yet on closer examination, Thai-US relations under President Donald Trump since 2017 have warmed up considerably compared to his predecessor Barack Obama. President Trump received Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, then a military junta leader, at the White House in October 2017. Since then, Thai purchases of US military hardware have revived. Just last month, Thailand and the US signed a Joint Vision Statement to reaffirm and reinvigorate the bilateral treaty alliance that dates back to 1954, highlighted by the US Army chief-of-staff's visit to Bangkok. It does not make sense for the US to support the student movement to see the back of Gen Prayut and his government. Any Thai government cannot afford to be anti-China but the Prayut-led and military-backed regime has been broadly pro-US since Mr Trump took office.

But wait, there is a better conspiracy. Maybe China is supporting the Thai students because the Chinese know that the US would be blamed for the student demonstrations. It might sound outlandish but not implausible for Beijing to use Thai students against Washington, especially since young Thais have been central and prominent in the anti-China Milk Tea Alliance. Or so it goes.

These are just some of the conspiracies and denials being peddled by the anti-student conservative forces. They have and will come up with more hogwash because they cannot afford to face up and own up to inconvenient truths that young Thai students are exposing.

Indeed, these young Thais cannot exist on their own merits with genuine grievances because if they do it would mean their objects of dissent and opposition would also be real and present, that the butts of their criticisms would then be called out for change and reform.

For an evidence-based view, we need to listen and look at the facts of what the students are saying. These facts are wide-ranging, longstanding, and entrenched, with a smell of corruption, collusion and nepotism.

They start from a coup that was supposed to be short and promising but degenerated into unaccountable scandals, abuses of power, and dim economic prospects.

Wherever the spotlight shines, Thailand's main institutions are rotten and cry out for reform, from the police that supervise illegal gambling to public prosecutors who just about let off a wealthy big business scion and a bloated military that conscripts young people in peacetime to do menial work for senior officers.

Parliament is uneven because the latest constitution was manipulated to enable military-linked senators who earn handsome salaries without having to show up regularly but still get to pick the prime minister.

When it comes to defending the country, the Thai armed forces have a penchant for costly hardware, like submarines, without a clear geostrategic outlook, threat perception, and defence posture.

In schools, teachers have been dishing out corporal punishment for decades, and a rigid curriculum grinds down young minds who are supposed to be taught critical thinking. Thailand has seen a dark rise in enforced disappearances where critics of the status quo can be made to vanish.

The list goes on, and the best way to separate fact from fiction and fake news is to listen to what these young Thais have been saying. Eyes, ears and an open mind are all that are needed to know the imperative for change and reform in Thailand.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director 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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