As I sat down with Dr. Daungyewa Utarasint, Adjunct Lecturer of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi, I asked if she was comfortable with being recorded. She told me that up until the previous weeks’ protests, she wouldn’t have felt safe doing so, but it didn’t matter now.
Thailand, known by many NYUAD spring breakers as the land of beaches and cheap drinks, is in the midst of a massive political and cultural shift. Unbeknown to many, Thailand enforces some of the strictest lése-majesté — insulting the monarch — laws in the world. On paper, political dissidents risk facing up to 15 years in jail, but in reality, the corpses of political activists violently killed over the past decades reveal the tip of a very ugly iceberg.
Over the past months, things have slowly begun to change and people are no longer afraid to speak out. “We have seen many problems for a long time and it’s getting worse as each day passes by,” explained Nichatorn Uphonthian, a student at Thammasat University. “And that’s why we come out to exercise our rights.”
This week, tens of thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Bangkok
, forming a crowd large enough to pack the space between three of the city’s most politically historic locations: the ironically titled Democracy Monument, Thammasat University — where previous protests have been violently quashed — and the front steps of the Grand Palace.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s official head of state, heard nothing of the angry chanting of course, as he hasn’t lived in the Grand Palace for a number of years. He lives lavishly in Europe
, funded by the royal family’s wealth
and only occasionally visits Thailand for ceremonial events. Instead, protestors called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and other powerful leaders of the military junta currently running the country on the king’s behalf.
In some ways, Covid-19 has helped clear a path for protestors to march on, but in other ways, it has made that path treacherous. While Thailand has managed to avoid major outbreaks of Covid-19, border closures have decimated the country’s tourism and manufacturing industries
, leaving many Thais suffering under heavy economic stress. Dr. Daungyewa explains that anti-monarchy protests didn’t begin with the pandemic, but it is one of the many reasons people are taking to the streets in such great numbers.
With that said, the pandemic has led the government to declare a state of emergency that allows for more autocratic power over the people. Though the threat of the virus is currently low, and Bangkok has already reopened, the government continues to prolong the mandate
, which makes the demonstrations illegal. Many of the protest leaders who have been arrested in the past weeks have been taken in on these grounds. The government has also taken to pressuring universities to ban protesting
and threatening students in their parents’ homes.
Protesters began with three demands from the government: to pass a new constitution, dissolve the parliament and protect political dissidents. On Aug. 10, they took it one step further by publishing a more comprehensive ten-point manifesto
, calling to curb the king’s power. So far, these demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. With the violence of previous protests burned in Thailand’s collective memory, demonstrators have found ways to peacefully navigate clashes with the military.
Dr. Daungyewa described a number of ways that protest leaders have tried to maintain a non-violent pattern. The movement, strongly supported by high school and university students, has adopted The Hunger Games’ three finger salute as a symbol of resistance.
“Pop culture makes the students feel like this is something big and powerful,” explained Dr. Daungyewa, while still keeping a youthful tone herself.
Protestors have also taken to dropping to the ground in large groups any time physical altercations with the police threaten to arise. It’s a deescalation tactic that keeps the military from having an excuse to shoot.
However, Dr. Daungyewa fears a potential turning of the tide. “I have hope but I’m also scared,” she said. On Sept. 24, Thailand’s parliament gathered to vote on amending the constitution. No one was surprised to hear that the senators, a majority of whom were appointed by the military, voted to postpone the decision until November. What truly surprised people was what could be heard outside the state building’s gates — “Ai Hia!” the protestors chanted. The word literally means monitor lizard, but the strength of the insult cannot be translated. It’s a word rarely heard in public, and entirely unheard of directed towards the government. The incident rattled many, Dr. Daungyewa included. That night, the hashtag #RepublicofThailand
trended on Thai Twitter. It’s the most politically assertive hashtag that has flooded Thailand’s social media to date.
Today, the demonstrations stand at a crossroads. Dr. Daungyewa believes that if protestors are able to maintain their clever non-confrontational tactics for the next few years, they may find success peacefully in the next election. But to do so will require a lot of restraint. Will the country be forced into violent political clashes, or will protesters find ways to peacefully bring about change? Only time will tell.
Cassandra Mitchell is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.