Since the banning of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from politics, and the dissolution of his Future Forward Party in February 2020, which had widespread youth support, students lost a political platform that was publicly airing their grievances. The shutting down of Future Forward denied students any political voice, which led to Thammasat University students organizing ‘leaderless’ demonstrations and protests in the Bangkok city centre, last year. Demonstrations of this size have not been seen in Bangkok since ex-politician Suthep Thaugsuban organized the shutdown Bangkok rallies, which led to the downfall of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, and installation of former army leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister in a military led coup in 2014.
Student rallies reached an estimated 30,000 plus attendance, advocating three core demands; the resignation of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his government, the amendment of the 2017 military backed constitution, to make it more democratic, and more controversially, reform of the monarchy, so that the institution is more accountable.
The protests reaching a crescendo in December last year, were suddenly put off, due to a spike in Covid cases originating from an outbreak at a wet market in Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok. The first series of protests last year were, on the whole, peaceful expressions over students’ core grievances, through the symbolic handing of letters to authorities demanding Prayuth’s resignation, theatre, music, dance, and artistic festivities. Many protests had a carnival like atmosphere, where curious onlookers joined in. Remnants of the red shirt movement organized mobile speaker platforms on the back of trucks, so speeches could be given to the crowds. Street stalls were also attracted to the events, doing brisk trade in food and souvenirs.
Demonstrations remained peaceful until ultra-loyalists, some of who were suspected of being army personnel, dressed in yellow shirts, stood up to students on the streets. The Thai Border Police who were charged to barricade major roads leading to the Royal Palace erected razor wire and placed walls of shipping containers across roads to prevent students reaching their intended destinations. Chemically laced water cannons were used when students threatened barricades and removed containers and parked buses blocking the road. This led to a number of minor casualties within student ranks and a few border police on the other side of the barricades.
Authorities have changed their attitude towards the student protesters since protests have restarted, with much lower numbers this year. As few as 200-300 students have been turning up to rallies, until last weekend, there were calls by students to protest the detention of at least 19 students on Lese Majeste charges, who have been denied bail. Police on 6th March used rubber bullets against the students, in what appears to be a major change in the rules of engagement, which were much more restrained against protesters last year. Groups of students, now without student wardens that were present at rallies last year to subdue any tendencies towards violence, have thrown rocks, glass bottles, and Molotov cocktails at riot police. This appears in frustration to the failure of demonstrations to bring any change last year, were some splinter groups see violence as a way to gain attention to their cause.
This has deeply split the student movement, were some groups want to focus on reforming democracy, rather than criticise the monarchy. This has led to groups blocking other group sites on social media, particularly over the issue of monarchy. There are also claims of embezzlement and lack of transparency about how donations were handled from some corners of the student cohort.
On Saturday, 20th March around 3,000 students, who were intent on marching to the Grand Palace were blocked by walls of shipping containers, preventing entry into the vicinity of the palace. After students removed two shipping containers by tugging them away with long ropes, police fired their water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets into the student crowd, injuring at least 30 students, and a number of media reporters. After crowds dispersed, police went on search and arrest hunt around back streets, arresting 32 students, charging them with various offences relating to breaking rules about the gathering of crowds during the emergency decree. Police raided a local publisher, Samesky Publishing and seized copies of a book “Monarchy and Thai Society”, with speeches from earlier rallies, prepared by the Restart Democracy, or Redem group, one of the organizers of the protest.
A follow up rally, organized by the non-violent Thammasat Restart Democracy Group, on the eve of a number of students reporting to prosecutors, went back to their festive stall format. This attracted more than 1,000 students without any violent confrontation with police.
Student protests, originally thought to have lost momentum, are rekindling in Bangkok. Authorities are trying to deter students attending through prosecution, and utilizing heavy-handed tactics against demonstrators, who challenge police lines.
This month, police have arrested a student protest leader, in relation to an incident last October, Francis Bunueanun Paothong, along with four others on an indictment of harming the liberty of the queen, whose motorcade came upon a student protest unannounced. This indictment under Section 110 of the Penal Code, sedition, carries the maximum penalty of life in prison. It has never been explained how the queen’s motorcade was allowed to come into direct contact with the student protest by police. Francis, strongly claims he is innocent of these charges.
There are now more than 76 people who have been charged under Section 112 of the Penal Code for Lese Majeste, carrying a maximum 15 year jail term, of which 19 students on these charges have been refused bail and are in prison. Police have been searching CCTV footage for more students to charge, putting fear into students who are attending protests. It appears, police are focusing on the leaders of the protests in an attempt to destroy the organizing group. Last year, police were outsmarted by the leaders, who were able to switch locations, protest groups would gather and march to, on no notice.
In response to concerns Thai people are losing faith in the monarchy, the authorities have launched a drive to enhance peoples’ loyalty towards the monarchy. This is at a time where the monarchy has been openly criticized by the students, and there is a host of material freely available on the internet, which is deemed critical of the Thai monarch. In ceremonies around the country, the current Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as King Rama X, is promoted alongside his still revered late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, to help restore credibility to the monarchy.
Authorities have also started a propaganda war against student groups. One group, Free Youth was heavily criticized for their new logo last Novembers, with R and T, for reset Thailand, resembling a communist sickle on a red background. Pro-establishment media played up an incident, after a protest on 6th March claimed 90 police were injured and one officer died of a stroke. Ultra-royalist circles are claiming third parties are involved and controlling the student movement, although offering no evidence.
The younger Thai generation doesn’t identify with past political groups. They have a completely different vision for Thailand, which doesn’t include being led by the old establishment. They are seeking change in the very heart of the establishment, something political parties would not dare to talk about in the past. Student demands are centred on seeking change in the political system that keeps the elite in power. With parliament unable to deal with these issues, and the failure of non-violent mass protests last year to bring change, a new and more militant chapter in the student protest movement is beginning.
The Covid pandemic, emergency laws, and fear of arrest is keeping student numbers down on the streets, where they are numerically outnumbered by riot police. General support for the student movement is not forthcoming, as the spirit of the old red shirt movement has been totally decimated by the military a decade ago. New allies, like Thanathorn has been banned, where he may only make a cameo appearance on a skateboard at some demonstrations.
In consequence, the hardline student splinter groups are now turning to more direct action, as their strategy against authorities. They are intent on testing the resolve of the authorities, while the authorities are now intent on breaking the spirit of the protestors through harsh action on the streets, and arresting all the ringleaders of the student movement.
This one year old movement has shown the consequences of eliminating political voices within the country. The dissolution of Future Forward triggered a much wider political movement within the young generation. This generation has seen the change in Thailand’s political system from a haphazard democracy during the Taksin years, two military coups, and a pseudo-democracy which serves the interests of the establishment. The hardline stance the authorities are taking against those criticizing the monarchy will either bring absolute fear into those tempted criticize, or open a pandora’s box that cannot be closed.