At virtually every turn, the youthful protestors challenging the status quo in Thailand have been one step ahead of the aging generals grappling to remain in power, a fact never so obvious as on Friday afternoon when – after the government closed down the site of their latest pro-democracy protest – the student-based movement flipped the switch and instantly moved it across town.
Harnessing the power of social media – as opposed to former coup leaders who see Facebook, Twitter and Line as enemies of the state – the pro-democracy activists threw police and the army a massive head-fake, getting authorities to commit to a full-court press at at Bangkok’s Ratchprasong intersection only to have the protest moved to Pathumwan intersection outside the MBK shopping mall.
Police forces in riot gear were left in the glitzy shopping district, twiddling their thumbs in the rain. At the same time, they angered even more people – Friday night commuters – who suddenly found the BTS Chit Lom and Ratchadamri stations needlessly closed.
(BTS National Stadium, Siam and Ratchathewi was closed later, undoubtedly leaving many stranded and some deciding to join the mass protest.)
It was a deft move, made possible because of the protest generation’s umbilical cord-like connection to their mobile phones and social media. Thousands shut down the intersection for a 5 p.m. protest despite a constant downpour that many protestors said was a small price to pay for more freedom and democracy.
Government holding all the cards
There’s little sign that either of that is coming, however. Despite the steady and impressive numbers this week’s protests generated, Friday’s rally was largely leaderless after government forces scooped up dozens of the movement’s top organizers and jailing them and denying bail for half.
Two others alleged to be the leaders of the symbolic protest along the route of this week’s royal motorcade face even darker prospects. The government charged Ekachai Hongkangwan and Bunkueanun Paothong with “violence toward the monarchy” when they impeded the movement of the motorcade to flash three-finger “Hunger Games” salutes at HM the Queen. They face 15 years, 20 years or even life in prison.
To be clear, however, there was no violence. The charges are trumped up and exaggerated. But that hardly matters when you control the police, prosecutors and courts. Any pretense of democracy in the legal system in Thailand is a sham.
Having already imposed a new emergency decree for Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha continued over-reacting Friday, threatening to impose an curfew on the entire capital if the protests escalate. But, again, the only escalation throughout has been by the government.
The protests have been remarkably peaceful, even festive at points, with live music and outlandish costumes at the Oct. 14 rally and Sept. 19. Unlike the furious Red Shirt riots of a decade ago, the Generation-Z protestors have follow the playbook of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, strictly adhering to civil disobedience rather than violent uprising.
As Thursday’s Ratchprasong protest began, organizers urged participants to simply sit down and not fight the police. On Wednesday, even as they were attacked physically by ultraroyalist military coscripts in crew cuts and yellow shirts trucked in by the state, there were few fights and those were only in self-defense.
Things got much more tense tonight, as riot police outwitted at Ratchprasong reassembled at Pathumwan, backed by water cannons whose payload was laced with irritants. For a few nervous moments, rows of shield-wielding police formed a line against rows of young demonstrators armed with only umbrellas and determined will.
Forces moved in, wielding batons and shields, backed by plumes of water. Older, battle-tested protestors took the fore, trying to protect the university and high-school students. Faced with the prospect of major violence and carnage, the protestors relented, allowing officers to push into the crowd.
Demonstrators tried to form a second line, their eyes burning from the teargas poured into the water-canon tanks.
In a matter of minutes it was over. The lines broke around 7:30 p.m. By 7:45 the demonstrators were walking out, with some calling for reassembly at Chulongkorn University. The MRT subway’s Sam Yan station had already been closed.
What Comes Next?
Clearly, the sit-in and rallies have unnerved the former junta leaders, but the question now becomes where does the pro-democracy movement go from here?
Most of their leaders are jailed, the government has suspended even its own rigged constitution to do what it likes under an emergency decree, a curfew seems inevitable and, despite the international press the rallies have attracted, the number of people attending them have plateaued.
All four the past four protests, including the rain-soaked demonstration tonight, consistently have attracted 10,000 or even 20,000 people. How does the movement take that to 100,000, or 500,000 or even a million? When will there be simultaneous large protests in cities across the country? Without that, the odds for success remain incredibly long.
Amid a worldwide pandemic and a recession unlike no other in Thailand in 22 years, with two-thirds of Thais having seen their incomes cut, 10 percent unemployment and half of those still working expecting to lose their jobs, the general public has shown little appetite for overturning another apple cart.
So, despite the merits of the activists’ mission, leaders of the pro-democracy movement need to answer the question of “what is the end game here?”
Prayut insisted Friday he has no plans to resign and, legally, he is holding all the cards. Does the country now settle into an unending string of sit-ins and rallies that change nothing create a stalemate that, in the past, has opened the door for military intervention?
It seems ludicrous to think the army would stage another coup against one of its own, but Prayut’s incompetence and the country’s economic – and now political – crisis has weakened his base. It’s not far-fetched some other grandfather in a tight green uniform might think he could do better.
Photos exclusively for the Bangkok Herald by Tyler Roney, a freelance journalist in Bangkok,