Will 2020 be any different from 1976 or 2010?
After years of false starts, the fuse has finally been lit. Tens of thousands of people have filled the streets in scenes that recall the events of 1973, 1976, 1992, 2010, and 2014. The sheer number of similar moments betrays a painful truth: apart from 1932’s overthrowing of absolute monarchy by military and civilian elites, the unending cycle of dictatorships, youth-led uprisings, crackdowns, and victory is always stained with blood. But 2020 could be different. Social media has fueled fast-moving demonstrations, and demands for reform have reached as high up as the palace.
With Thailand again at a crossroads and the threat of violence looming, BK Magazine and Coconuts Bangkok teamed up to ask leading commentators, protestors, and ex-politicians to game out where the protest movement is headed—and if a peaceful resolution is possible. [Their comments were edited for space and clarity.]
Winning over the middle
Tripop Leelasestaporn, political commentator and online provocateur
It would be naive of me to say that there will be no violence involved in changing society, and I don’t think a 100-percent peaceful protest can pressure Prayuth and his regime either. Despite the historical precedents, I don’t think this will lead to bloodshed like the Thammasat Massacre. It wasn’t a fear of losing the monarchy that gave rise to the massacre, but rather the government stoking fear of communism. Now it’s another story.
I don’t believe that the king’s abdication is a consensus goal of the protesters. The idea of making Thailand a republic has been circulating, but their primary goal is to reform the monarchy, not wipe it out. It is undeniable that the royal family has been an integral part of Thai society, and the old propaganda remains deeply entrenched in people’s thinking. The movement will need more centrists who want change but are opposed to becoming a republic. Many are afraid to speak it aloud, so we need to make sure that there’s nothing seen as wrong about changing our royal family. These demands are not against the monarchy—they are to make sure it can be still relevant in our society.
Expect a coup—and soon
Credit: Don Sambandaraksa via Flickr
Sondhi Limthongkul, Thai media mogul and leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, better known as the Yellow Shirt movement
Politics is all about compromise. But in Thailand, when you talk about compromise, you’re talking about the rich and powerful versus the poor and [powerless]. Thailand has had a lot of confrontations like this. The way out has always been a coup d’état. It’s an evil cycle. You have a coup d’état, the people rise up against the military, the military steps back, there’s a new election, and then there’s a deadlock again. Nothing changes.
Now, this protest is different. This protest has, for the first time, been able to utilize the power of social media. And it’s the first time, too, that the monarchy has been attacked—a direct and outright attack. It is quite clear this is going toward the abolishment of the monarchy. For instance, there’s an article in the constitution that outlaws criticizing the king and queen. If they eradicate this article, it means maybe 10,000 people can give the middle finger to the king or queen, call them “bastard” or “asshole,” whatever [they say] now. But what I think is happening is the empire strikes back… and the students will lose, because most people in Thailand still believe we need the monarchy. I think there’s going to be a coup d’état. Very soon.
Grief and pain
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University political scientist
There is no such “ending” as in “how it ends,” only an ongoing evolution. What besets Thailand now is similar to tensions and challenges to absolute monarchy 100 years ago. The protest movement then among newly educated and up-and-coming bureaucratic elites, civilians, and military replaced entrenched absolutism with fledgling constitutionalism. Yet the monarchy was able to later regroup and regain ground in a symbiotic relationship with the military by the late 1950s. The extraordinary force of personality under King Bhumibol and his 70-year reign ultimately placed the throne at the apex of Thai socio-political hierarchy amidst regional communist expansionism.
As Thailand kept communism away and ushered in economic development, the resulting conservative political order from the Cold War era now faces bottom-up challenges from younger generations fed up with crises, coups, and constitutions that preserve the status quo. These young Thais under 40 want to reclaim a future held hostage by the old order. The destination is clear. Thailand will need to set up a political system with democratic legitimacy and reformed monarchy. The force of history ensures it, but getting there will likely be contentious, full of grief and pain.
Government must change course
Fuadi Pitsuwan, scholar and political scientist
The government will have to realize that the onus is on them to not escalate the conflict. The more the authorities try to suppress the movement, the more it’ll get stronger. I am hoping for a compromise. I am hoping the parliament will quickly amend the constitution, which should incorporate some of the protesters’ demands. Anything short of that would not end well. I don’t mean just the loss of lives, but the legitimacy of the government and the Thai state internationally, too.
Violence doesn’t have to be inevitable. In the end, I hope the government changes course and listens to the demands. If not… then violence is inevitable. Kudos to the protest leaders, though, that they are trying to prevent it from happening.
As for calls to reform the monarchy, I think every institution needs to reevaluate its place within the Thai polity, including the military and monarchy. We need to find a new consensus among different political players, particularly between the monarchy and the people. We used to have that in the past. Every institution needs to adapt to survive the information revolution underway globally.
Forcing the hand of change
Narinya Mongkoleiam, online political commentator and influencer
The protesters will have to fight for a long time, a few years maybe, to get what they want if the government engages in stall tactics. It’s hard to get all three demands met. I don’t think changes can occur at all without this government being dissolved. It will be the first domino that begins the chain of events.
Monarchy reform will be the hardest because it’s controversial—even among the pro-democracy crowd—and causes conflict within the group. But this movement has already succeeded in breaking the taboo by calling the monarchy out directly.
It seems like violence will have to occur for things to really change. No one wants blood on their hands, but it seems like the government does. There would be foreign intervention if violence did happen… with international sanctions put in place, hurting the economy. The 1932 revolt was almost bloodless because the People’s Party went straight to the palace and a group of military officers was on their side. We can’t do that.
A curtain lifted
Claudio Sopranzetti, anthropologist and author of Taa Sawang and Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok
The history of these movements has found that our predictions are almost always wrong. An apparent victory can become a loss, and vice versa. Specifically talking about the use of violence from the state, it’s complicated business, often decided more on the spot than planned ahead. I think that a new space has been opened for discussion of an institution which has historically been protected by a curtain of respect and fear. Those openings are hard to close and ultimately will represent the most significant outcome of this protest.
Leave it up to the majority
Charnnarong Krutto, Thai Pakdee (Thai Loyalists) group
Since the 1932 revolution, there have been many coups and uprisings by the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) and military officers. But the recent two coups didn’t occur because soldiers wanted power: they were coups to eliminate elected politicians who were corrupt and only sought to benefit their own groups. Bloodshed doesn’t happen with every coup, but it can happen from using power and rights to harm others. The current uprising is not against the dictatorship or a corrupt government but is happening because a certain group, a minority, opposes the monarchy and wants to change the country from a constitutional monarchy to something else.
As for the prospect of violence, we need to ask the protesters to carefully consider the fact that, at the very least, democracy rests upon the principle of majority rule. Does what they’re protesting for really represent the majority? Does everyone really benefit from what they are doing? The monarchy reforms or regime change the protesters are demanding cannot happen because there are many other people who want to keep the monarchy. Violence is avoidable as long as everyone respects the law, and as long as there is no instigation or confrontation between the two sides.
Prayuth stays in power
Prachaya “Ice” Nongnuch, political reporter
This could end one of two ways: in accordance with the constitution under the parliament, or the unconstitutional way, by coup. We’re not yet in a political vacuum where unconstitutional measures are needed. It’s also difficult for a coup against Gen. Prayut to happen, because we all know that the government and the army are strongly unified. What’s more likely is he will tighten his grip on power through security laws—for example, announcing another emergency decree in Bangkok or, if the situation escalates further, imposing martial law. I’d say the chances are very slim Gen. Prayuth resigns anytime soon.
Could a massacre like Oct. 6, 1976, occur again? Compare past events with our current situation and you will get the answer. It’s very unlikely in this day and age because of [social media]. Worst-case scenario, and violence does happen? The government might have to retreat. We have lessons from the past, like the popular uprising of Oct 14, 1973, when Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn had to step down, or the Black May 1992 event, when Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon had to resign for calm to return to Bangkok. But the 1976 massacre and 2010 military crackdown also happened because the government wouldn’t back down.
An unprecedented crossroads
Janjira Sombutpoonsiri, German Institute for Global and Area Studies and Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University
The most likely scenario is that the authorities do not concede at all to any of the demands, which will lead to a long stalemate. Actually, this would do more damage to the ruling elites than the protesters. The repression of protesters will only lead to increased support for them. As we saw after the Oct 16 demonstration, when police dispersed the crowd with water cannons, people weren’t afraid and didn’t stay home the next day. Oct 17 and Oct 18 saw even more protesters join.
I don’t know if I can say that these ongoing protests will end with violence. I think Thai society has arrived at a point we might have never seen before. Some people question if this is like the 1932 revolution or the Oct 14, 1973, uprising. It is, in some ways. But while many elements resemble past events, there are new variables such as technology, the global political context, palace dynamics, and even the protest demographics. With these variables, it’s difficult to predict whether history will repeat itself. It might, but it’s also possible that we’re reaching an unprecedented crossroads in Thai history.
The people will prevail–eventually
Benjamaporn “Ploy” Nivas, leader of the Bad Student movement
I honestly don’t know how this moment will end. We have been living with a flawed democracy not only for the six years of this regime, but for decades and decades, ever since my grandparents’ generation. But what’s going on right now brings fresh hope for Thai society. Every citizen should have the freedom to vote for officials who create and implement rules that better the lives of citizens instead of forming their own groups of cronies to rake in the benefits. If we don’t achieve our aims, if those wielding power don’t change and adapt to the people’s demands, there will always be an outcry from the public. Times change, and different players will always come in, but history repeats itself. No matter how long it takes—another 10, 20, 30 years—the people will prevail.
Reporting: Chayanit Itthipongmaetee, Dhipkawee Sriyananda Selley, Thitima Sukontaros, Veerabhatr Sriyananda, Kanicha Nualkhair, Thanawat Buddhichewin, Todd Ruiz, Craig Sauers