Thailand has lived through repeated cycles of political unrest and military coups. Now a new democratic awakening is under way among the young. Some of the biggest protests for years have demanded a loosening of the country’s deeply conservative, military-backed rule. Breaking old taboos, they have proposed checks and balances on Thailand’s powerful monarchy. Even schoolchildren have been making a defiant salute during daily singing of the national anthem.
The protests’ roots lie in elections last year widely dismissed as a charade. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who has led Thailand’s military dictatorship since the latest coup in 2014, was installed as prime minister under a post-coup constitution that all but ensured the military camp a win. Many young people backed Future Forward, a pro-reform party, only to see their votes in effect taken away soon after by an overbearing regime.
The military-backed establishment began legally harassing the party, which was eventually dissolved in February. The easing of a coronavirus lockdown in June allowed anger to burst forth. Demonstrators in what they are calling the Free Youth or Free People movement are demanding the post-coup constitution be rewritten, parliament dissolved and harassment of government opponents ended.
The protesters resemble those in other parts of the world — for good reason. Unafraid of the authorities, predominantly young, they are part of a globally connected generation that has watched and learnt from unrest elsewhere — from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests to the Black Lives Matter rallies in the US. They have harnessed technology to organise “flash” protests and skirt around the laws that protect the monarchy from criticism — using social media to circulate anonymous slogans.
It is this willingness to demand reform of the monarchy — along with the military, one of the pillars of the Thai state — that marks out this generation, above all, from its predecessors. Critics point out that King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been in Europe for most of the pandemic. The king, officially crowned as Rama X last year, has consolidated wealth and power since his father’s death in 2016 and presided over a return to traditionalism when the outward-looking younger generation is yearning for reform.
Thai authorities have arrested three demonstrators and issued warrants for six more. They would do better to engage with the kingdom’s young people. The university and high-school students should be allowed to speak their minds and be heeded by Thailand’s conservative leaders. The constitution, which paved the way for last year’s flawed election, needs rewriting. Reform of the monarchy, or at least some of the laws insulating it from public scrutiny or debate, is the best way to safeguard an institution the great majority of Thais say they support.
Reactionary rule is stifling south-east Asia’s second-largest economy; laws limiting free expression and an old-school education system hold back innovation. A peaceful transition to a more representative democracy would help to rekindle economic dynamism. A return to political conflict or street violence could cost it dearly.
The US, a longtime Bangkok ally, has a potential role in gently encouraging reform; the more ossified Thailand’s system, the more likely it is to end up, like some neighbours, a client state of China. But this is above all a matter for Thais. The protests provide a moment the leadership should seize to break out of the old political cycles by listening to its people, and allowing a new generation with fresh ideas to come to the fore.