By Penchan Phoborisut*
Thailand’s anti-government protests have continued in 2021, with the student-led movement trying to maintain momentum despite a surging number of arbitrary arrests and authorities’ use of water cannons, rubber bullets and physical assault.
Students and activists who were arrested for organising protests in 2020 and 2021 have been denied bail and visitation from their families. The prominent student activists Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak and Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul have started a hunger strike after being imprisoned without bail. The court’s denial of bail illustrates state machinations that deny fundamental rights to protesters while their cases are still being prosecuted. The condition of no bail without conviction implies prolonged detention of arrested students pending trial.
While the detention of political activists may have stymied protests to some degree, activists have employed decentralised, networked communication tactics to mobilise against the Thai establishment and its adherence to hierarchical communication strategies of the past.
Young activists demanded the resignation of junta leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a new constitution, and monarchical reform. They broke through the glass ceiling protecting the monarchy from criticism — the lese majeste law prohibiting criticism against the King, the Queen and the heir apparent, which is punishable by 3 to 15 years imprisonment. Student protesters have succeeded in unearthing the monarchy’s irregularities, raising questions about the King’s residence in Germany, the violation of human rights in silencing exiled political activists, the Crown Property Bureau’s huge assets and the King’s personal army regiment.
The audacity and political determination of youth activists is partly explained by changes in the information economy. The economy today no longer privileges hierarchical relations in production: the information society has forged new types of relationships in the market where consumers can become producers, confident in their ability to effect change and accomplish their goals in the digitally networked environment by forming new connections and becoming politically engaged. In Thailand’s 2019 elections, netizens crafted the social media hashtag to engage in politics. The #FahRakPho expressed support for the former Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Elections that had formerly relied on local political canvassers shifted to online and offline social influencers.
Similarly, the pro-democracy movement has been energised by influencers from a diverse set of online communities that have grown politicised — from pop culture fan clubs, LGBTQI+ groups, and YouTube celebrities’ subscribers. With this decentralised structure, the network enables the fluidity for individual of influence to lead, connect and amplify their political movements, and to reconfigure tactics when traversing state suppression. The network has adapted to efforts at state control by changing protest locations or calling off rallies at short notice to avoid arrest. The loosely connected network is organic — operating in the manner of plant rhizomes that spring up from the points where they are severed to form new lines.
Amid the ongoing anti-monarchy sentiments, the Palace has not issued any statements or response to the demands of student protesters. This is a stark departure from practice in the reign of the late King Bhumibol, who was lauded for his charisma and extraordinary capacity for communicating with the public as a mediator during political conflicts in 1973, 1976 and 1992. In the context of the Cold War the international community engaged King Bhumibol as a bulwark against communism, with the US helping craft print and film media to portray the Thai monarchy as being threatened by communist insurgency. Now, with the Cold War era over, political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun observed that King Vajiralongkorn is less strategically positioned internationally, and rarely gives public speeches or interviews about current events.
As anti-monarchy sentiments grow, the Palace has sought to stabilise the King’s position. Since October 2020, the King has remained in Thailand and postponed his return to Germany. He has attended royal functions and visited different parts of the country, replicating Cold War-era royalist strategies to enhance the monarchy’s popularity.
The Palace has also tried to harness the power of social media. A viral video shows the King greeting his elated followers and complimenting a man in a yellow shirt (a colour identified with the King) who had earlier raised photos of late King Bhumibol challenging protesters at a student rally. The viral clip perpetuated the myth of an ‘auspicious encounter’ with the royals. These strategies depict the monarchy’s sacrosanct position while reasserting the hierarchical structure that demarcates the monarchy’s divine position from his earthly subjects. These are anachronistic in the modern world.
The military-backed government has at the same time deployed top-down measures to censor political dissenters and promote pro-establishment content on social media. Leaked documents from the military’s Information Operation contained instructions to post and comment in favour of the government, threaten the government’s vocal critics, and deepen political divisiveness. In October 2020, Thailand made news headlines when Stanford University identified 926 Twitter accounts linked to the Thai Army which were later suspended.
The state also hired professionals to propagate pro-government messages on social media. The recently founded hyper-royalist ‘Top News’ is dedicated to generating digital content to discredit the student-led movements, dehumanise student activists and promote antagonism towards them and their cause.
Thai authorities have aimed to strike fear using arbitrary arrest and detention. The current pro-democracy movement appears to be fizzling out but the past year has revealed Thailand’s youth as outspoken, creative and determined to resolve the country’s political dysfunction. Their decentralised networks have so far withstood demolition efforts by the authoritarian government.
*About the author: Penchan Phoborisut is Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton.