Pro-democracy youth protests running out of steam

Leaders’ arrests, anti-COVID measures and internal divisions have weakened the anti-government youth movement. Calls for changes to the monarchy have frightened older generations. For Thai political scientist, the “stifling” status quo is bound to persist.


Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters defied police bans and took to the streets yesterday to oppose the government, calling for the release of a hundred activists arrested the previous day for violating health measures against the coronavirus.

After reaching a crescendo a few months ago with rallies attracting tens of thousands of people, the pro-democracy movement is losing steam.

For almost a year, young Thais have been calling for the resignation of “coup leader” Prayuth Chan-ocha, the adoption of a democratic constitution, and the reform of the monarchy.

To stop the wave of protests, the authorities have been enforcing the “lese majesté” law, and jailed nine anti-government leaders.

In Thailand, attacking the king is something unprecedented. Traditionally, he is seen as a sacred figure, and insults against the monarch are punished with imprisonment of up to 15 years.

The protest movement is still “on the move but in thin numbers,” said Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

The authorities have regained control of the situation, repressing the most vigorous anti-establishment movement the country has seen in decades, the scholar told AsiaNews.

Prayuth is the prime target of the protests. A former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, he came to power in 2014 in a coup, and has led a civilian government since last year.

His critics accuse him of imposing a tailored-made constitution in 2017 and rigging the elections that formally ended military rule.

According to Thitinan, it is difficult to determine whether the upheavals of the last year are the first round of a long fight, or if everything is over.

The protest movement, he notes, began to weaken in December, with the arrival of the second wave of COVID-19. The police have used the pandemic to multiply arrests.

Internal divisions and the inability to go beyond young people and involve older Thais has played into the prime minister’s hands.

Prayuth has played the waiting game, letting the movement lose its propulsive force.

For Thitinan, attacks on the monarchy, growing calls by some protesters for some “communist utopia” and violence committed by leaderless groups have restored the government’s legitimacy.

Had it kept to a narrower political agenda, the youth protest could have been more successful.

The older generation is aware of the need for reforms against public corruption, economic stagnation, and educational shortcomings.

In the near future, the “stifling” status quo will continue in Thailand, Thitinan says, as the attention of the international community will be more focused on what is happening in neighbouring Myanmar.

Pro-democracy activists pin their hope on those youth groups, such as the Milk Tea Alliance, which are trying to keep alive online a network of protest and action with the involvement of Thai, Myanmar and Hong Kong activists.