Reforms need broadening of the agenda
Thailand's student-led protest movement for overdue political change and reforms has reached a crucial juncture. In the aftermath of its most recent demonstration on Sept 19 at Sanam Luang public ground and open field in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok's old town, the protest agenda can be seen as either zooming in directly on monarchical reform or emanating more from the side and down below on broader institutional changes that include the monarchy.
Following on from their audacious series of speeches on monarchical reconsideration since Aug 3, the brave young protesters, who led the overnight protest outing at Sanam Luang, risk becoming a single-issue movement that may not sufficiently broaden to effect the changes they -- and many other Thais -- would like to see. The impediment to their single-issue crusade is attributable to their own and correct assumption about Thailand's social fabric that has been so-called systematically "brainwashed" for decades to hold a certain conservative values system revolving around the monarch and monarchy as the apex.
For ordinary Thais above the age of the protesting millennials and other young-generation types, the agenda that takes the monarchy to task, such as the 10-point manifesto on Aug 10, is shocking and not easily palatable because we have been socialised and indoctrinated from state-owned media and the state-run education system for decades to believe and identify with a strict, rigid and made-up Thai identity and "Thainess". But this systematic political inculcation and social engineering took place within a different set of circumstances.
In the 1950s-80s during the critical stage of making Thainess out of Thais, there was a war to fight with the communists, local and foreign. Lest we forget, falling to communism ultimately became a bitter and deadly experience that led to untold economic hardships for our next-door neighbours. The construction of Thainess and its conversion of the Thais came with a high price but it also had its benefits in its time. Not only did Thailand elude communist expansionism but the monarchy-centred stability and unity enabled the Thai economy to expand steadily.
This is the unappreciated context that should inform the protest movement today. Increasingly in the 21st century, more and more Thais are cognisant of the fact that all is not well in their kingdom, that change and reform are needed. But they are coming round to this realisation much slower than the speech makers at Sanam Luang can put up with.
Unsurprisingly, from the big anti-monarchy rally of upwards to 30,000 in strength on Aug 16 at the Constitutional Monument to its highly touted next round at Sanam Luang last weekend, the number of protesters may have expanded significantly to perhaps 50,000 on an upbeat estimate. This increase amounted to nowhere near the anticipated landslide for a knockout blow to the legitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the conservative establishment that backs him.
This base is unlikely to swell as long as the activists are tied up with one cause when Thailand has myriad ills that need rectifying. While the student speeches against the monarchy may be widely heard, many Thais will need time to internalise the messages that are being conveyed. Social media networks have provided plenty of data points about why the status quo has its shortcomings but many Thais will also be concerned about what kind and how far the changes that are being demanded will go. Eventually, they may want to see both change and continuity. This is not something the fiery student speeches are providing.
As much has already been said about the need for change at the top, it behoves the student and other young leaders to let the new circumstances they have engendered seep into the collective public consciousness. Otherwise it will be regrettable if the more radical call for change crowds out and distracts from the more practical and sensible set of grievances and expectations.
Moreover, protest movements on their own have not brought down sitting governments so far in the 21st century. Both the yellow- and red-shirt demonstrators at their peak over the past 15 years had public turnouts much larger than the students have mustered. Only two military coups and a major judicial intervention, not street demonstrations, upended incumbent governments.
Even in the October 1973 episode, while the student movement was critical, factionalism and rivalry within the army were instrumental in ousting the military dictatorship at the time. The Bangkok-based middle class uprising against disguised military control of an elected government in May 1992 succeeded only when the late monarch intervened to put an end to the bloodshed.
There are a lot of areas to protest against in Thailand. Instead of focusing mainly on the monarchy, the young protest movement can broaden public support and draw in other segments of society by widening their agenda.
When the protest movement's grievances were more diverse and expansive in recent weeks, we heard about Thailand's shoddy and outdated education system that has failed to equip pupils with the thinking ability and skills they need in the 21st century. Military conscription is rotten from inside out, riven by graft and physical abuse, completely outdated. Military budget procurements are opaque and unaccountable.
The police are seen by many a major sponsor of the main vices the force is supposed to eradicate, from gambling and racketeering to prostitution and drugs. Many Thais no longer have confidence in the justice system when wealthy tycoons can get off lightly or unscathed from major crimes. Thailand's immigration apparatus is myopic and corrupt, giving the hardest time and imposing outrageous restrictions on foreigners and foreign talent who should have residency rights. The country's bureaucratic red tape and fat and inept bureaucratic organs need to be overhauled -- to point out just a few.
Thailand is crying out for institutional and bureaucratic reforms just about everywhere the microscope is focused. Re-education about what constitutes Thainess and a rethink about the force-fed symbols of Thai identity are taking place but it will take more time than the young protest leaders seem willing to give. It is better to work up from the bottom and in from the side. The rest will just about take care of itself.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.