The anatomy of waning youth protests

The anatomy of waning youth protests

By all accounts, Thailand's youth protest movement over the past year has lost steam. Its key leaders have been charged on anti-monarchy grounds and jailed without bail, while the rank-and-file are demoralised, still on the move but in thin numbers. On the other side, the incumbent centres of power have reasserted control and put down what at its peak was the most vociferous and vigorous anti-establishment movement Thailand had seen in decades.

While grievances of the young generation on campuses and the streets and the abuses and excesses of the upper demographics in the corridors of wealth and power persist, the stifling status quo is now set to prevail for the foreseeable future. For good measure, the highly anticipated move to overhaul the constitution by setting up a new drafting committee has been shot down in parliament, thanks in part to the very Senate that constitutional amendments were supposed to revamp. As a result, Thailand's flawed charter is set to entrench rather than reform. To make matters worse, however authoritarian Thailand becomes in the near future, it will be secondary and incidental to next-door Myanmar's brutal military dictatorship.

At issue concurrently will be the young generation's ability to regroup and regain traction and the older and powerful elites' willingness to adapt to new demands and expectations. What we saw over the past year was either the first round or the whole match as far as the young generation under 40 was a political force to be reckoned with.

In late February last year, anti-government flash mobs started to mushroom on university campuses and high schools in reaction to the dissolution of Future Forward Party, which had been the third-largest party in the March 2019 polls. The initial campus protests were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and consequent restrictions and lockdowns in March-May 2020 but resumed with popularity and intensity in June.

Over the subsequent months, the youth protest movement gathered momentum and transformed into a fully fledged anti-establishment drive. It first called for a halt to official harassment, constitutional amendments, and new polls. Later, the three demands became the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a new constitution, and reform of the monarchy. The overarching umbrella organisation was named Free Youth and then became Free People. Street protests peaked last October-November in the tens of thousands with mostly young demonstrators, mirrored by similar protest activities on campuses.

By December 2020, as the second Covid-19 wave emerged, the youth protest movement weakened, beset with internal divisions, an inability to broaden its appeal, and the arrest of key leaders. The Free People Movement became the Ratsadon Group, while another camp relaunched the Free Youth.

So far this year, the movement appears a shadow of itself, diluted and spent. Its regular street demonstrations now involve hundreds rather than tens of thousands. Frustrated, angry and devoid of discipline, a small number of protesters have resorted to violence, ceding legitimacy and the moral high ground to the authorities. Leaderless and in disarray, the youth protest movement of the past year is unmistakably no long a major political force.

When it is dissected and teased out for lessons and implications, Thailand's youth protest movement appears to have had legitimate grievances about abuses and injustices in Thai society. However, the movement may have set unachievable goals and pursued them in counterproductive ways.

When the young protesters zeroed in on military corruption from conscription to weapons procurement, it resonated widely. When they pointed out government incompetence and the imperative of education reforms, it reverberated. When the monarch and monarchy became the primary object of dissent, it led to controversy and the red flags of law enforcement went up.

As Thailand suffers from myriad socio-political ailments to the point of political retardation and potential economic stagnation, demands for reform and change should have come from different directions and aimed for lower-hanging fruit. Education reforms, for example, were an easy target had the protest movement kept messaging and focusing on it.

In addition to fragmenting into divergent columns with different preferences, the student-led movement did not delineate a clear and viable alternative political order. Many Thais found consonance in protest messages but the fixation with the monarchy led to generational splits and misgivings. Regular profanity and name-calling were a turn-off to older demographics. As a result, the movement never really broadened beyond the younger demographics. Had the main message been "taxation" and its misuse, for example, it could have galvanised and sustained a wider following.

When the Free Youth camp came up with the symbol "RT" with a hammer and sickle sign in early December, it was a turning point. Not only did the movement fail to broaden, but it began to lose the support it had. Turning to some communist utopia was not what many supporters and sympathisers had signed up for. One tell-tale sign of the potential impact of the youth movement was the Thai-language Facebook page called "royalistmarketplace". It attracted more than two million followers early on but has not expanded much since, serving as a venting platform rather than a political movement for positive change and reform for a better Thailand.

Thailand's officialdom was smart and shrewd to bide its time and let the youth movement rise up and exhaust itself, while intimidating and harassing its leaders with this and that charge. After its peak and when its split became clear, the authorities embarked on an eradication campaign, now mopping up what's left of the leadership with heavy-handed tactics, including arrests without warrants and imprisonment with neither conviction nor bail. The reality around here is that Thailand's peak may have passed, now mudding on indefinitely with a government that is run day to day without plans for a better future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

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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