Thai protests on October 14 a catalyst for resurgent democracy movement

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The date commemorates mass protests in 1973 that led to the ouster of a junta leader, but it’s unclear if this year’s movement can lead to lasting changes.

By Doug Snow                                                                   

Thailand is in the midst of a sustained popular uprising for democracy and self-determination.

While protests against the government and military-backed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha remerged in July, October 14 marked the start of widespread daily gatherings across Bangkok and other cities around the country.

Protestors are calling for the prime minister to step down and for reforms to the constitution and monarchy. Many protestors are students and young people who disagree with a constitution pushed through by the junta in 2017, which gives the military sole power to appoint Thailand’s 250-seat Senate.

After national elections in 2019, the appointed Senate helped secure enough votes for the military’s party to retain leadership despite an opposition party winning the most elected seats. The military initially gained power after forcing out the elected government in 2014.

The pro-democracy protests on October 14 saw thousands of anti-government protestors march toward government buildings in downtown Bangkok to press their demands. In the days that followed, the government has stepped up its response.

After the demonstration, the government pushed through an emergency decree that bans gatherings of five or more people in the capital. In defiance of the order, over 10,000 protesters met in Bangkok’s main shopping district on October 16.

Security forces later deployed trucks fitted with water cannons to disperse the crowds. Some of the water shot at protestors was laced with a chemical substance that burned the skin and eyes.

On October 17, the government shut down access to Bangkok’s mass transit system in an attempt to deter protestors from gathering. Large rallies took place in various parts of the city regardless.

In addition to jailing many of the movement’s most vocal leaders, some without bail or access to a lawyer, the government announced attempts on October 19 to suspend at least four news outlets over their coverage of the protests.

Facebook pages and a private messenger app popular with protestors were also targeted.

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The legacy of protests on October 14, 1973 are mixed

In 1973, the October 14 rally in Bangkok’s historic political district was the culmination of years of student protest against a government led by military leader Thanom Kittikachorn.

Thanom assumed leadership of the country in 1963 and subsequently reappointed himself prime minister on several occasions throughout the decade. Dissent against his prolonged rule grew and large-scale student-led demonstrations on October 14, 1973 pushed Thanom to resign later that evening.

Although successful in ousting Thanom, the protests were also met with violence. Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition in their attempts to disperse the crowds, killing at least 77 people and wounding over 800.

Democracy was restored but short lived. After an unstable democratic regime following Thanom’s ouster, the military took over the country again in 1976.

After going into exile upon being disposed, Thanom returned to Thailand in September 1976 and was ordained as a monk. When two activists were hanged for protesting Thanom’s return in a city near the capital, students at Thammasat University in Bangkok held their own demonstration.

Rumors circulated that protestors set up an effigy of then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn—Thailand’s current king— on Thammasat’s campus during the demonstration. On October 6, security forces and civilian vigilantes initiated a crackdown on the protests and brutally murdered at least 46 students on campus.

The military used the event, later known as the Thammasat University Massacre, to justify another coup. Thailand’s military subsequently took over governments in 1977, 1991, 2006 and 2014, demonstrating the fragility of Thailand’s democratic movements.

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The new movement resembles the movements of the 1970’s, but there are distinct contextual differences

While this generation’s movement has parallels with its predecessors, especially given the focus on student leadership, it also takes place in a significantly altered social and economic landscape.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Thailand was surrounded by political upheaval in neighboring countries. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in particular were mired in bloody conflicts that centered on debates surrounding communism and capitalism. 

Backed by US foreign policy in the region, Thailand’s military and royalist elite leveraged their influence to maintain a strong grip on power. Although socialist governments never managed to gain control in Thailand, the threat of leftist revolution was an ongoing concern for the elite and their supporters, making student protestors with left-leaning political bents a particular worry for the ruling classes.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the threat of expanding socialist movements has passed in the region. While some in the military leadership—many having come of age in the 1960s-70s—continue to portray the political debate in Thailand as one between far-left revolutionaries and moderate traditionalists, protestors frame the fight as one between democracy and dictatorship.

Similarly, the legacy of Thailand’s consistent economic growth also impacts the direction of this year’s democratic movement. Since 1973, Thailand’s GDP has increased from about US$7 billion to over US$543 billion in 2019.

Data from Thailand’s Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council show that in the late 1980’s, the poverty rate in Thailand was over 60%. In 2020, the poverty rate hovers just under 10% and a middle class, especially in and around Bangkok, is on the rise despite persistent inequalities.  

A significant portion of this growth is sustained by the country’s tourism sector. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports, international tourism accounted for 12.3% of GDP in 2018, the highest in the region. 

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, a loss in tourism revenue is set to severely impact the country’s economic outlook. In August the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office released a report noting that Thailand’s economy could contract by 7.8% by the end of the year, largely due to a loss in tourism and services revenue.

Although a prolonged standoff between protestors and the government could further jeopardize the health of the economy and Thailand’s reputation abroad, the wild card regarding the long-term legacy of this year’s protests could be the issue of the monarchy.

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Critique of the monarchy is becoming normalized, but it raises the risk of violence against protestors

Over the past week of protest, critique of the monarchy has become increasingly brazen. Normally a highly taboo subject, some protestors are ratcheting up their public defiance of the king.

At one protest site, graffiti with the words “Republic of Thailand” were spray-painted on the pavement below a picture of the Thai flag, a direct challenge to Thailand’s official status as a kingdom.

In other locations, pictures of King Vajiralongkorn were ripped down while protestors chanted for him to get out. In one particularly defiant move on October 14, a group of demonstrators confronted Queen Suthida’s royal motorcade when it intersected the protest route on the way to a temple for official royal duties. Protestors raised their hands in the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games franchise—a symbol of the movement—and two demonstrators were later arrested on charges that could lead to life in prison.

With large-scale demonstrations for democracy and freedom of expression occurring daily across the country since October 14, calls for political and institutional reform will likely keep growing.

The demonstrations could push the country towards much-needed reflections over the role of the monarchy and the influence of the military in politics, but only if the country is able to overcome the violence and bloodshed that too often accompanied past democratic movements. A new generation of Thais are willing to confront these topics head on, but it will take sustained peaceful resistance and the ruling classes must also be willing to meaningfully engage with the protestors if reforms are to be implemented and sustained over the long term.

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