In Thailand, youth ready to challenge the regime

In Thailand, youth ready to challenge the regime

Pro-democracy activists in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Pro-democracy activists in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Students are calling for a mass demonstration on Wednesday for the departure of a government from the ranks of the army, a new Constitution and a reform of the monarchy. A protest that began several decades ago but has always come up against repression and the polarization of a very divided society.

Shaky images, in black and white, show bodies dragged, burned and mutilated. Disfigured dead that are hung from trees, to keep hitting them. Recently, an unreleased video of the forgotten massacre of Thammasat University students on October 6, 1976 has surfaced. That day, they gathered to protest the return of military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. Labeled as communists and anti-royalists, between 50 and 500 of them fell under the bullets of the police, their corpses delivered to the rage of a crowd of ultraroyalists red hot. A few hours earlier, a respected monk had assured that “Killing a communist was not a sin”. A thick silence covered the event, the identities of the dead were never known, the perpetrators of the killing never worried.

The wound still hasn’t healed. As the new generation of Thai students call for protests again this Wednesday, the voice around these events is just starting to emerge. The organizers hope this time to gather up to 100,000 people and call on the employees to strike.

Like their elders, to whom they often refer, they demand the departure of a government from the ranks of the army and want to end once and for all with the military’s stranglehold on politics, thanks to a new Constitution. Above all, they dare to tackle the latest taboo in Thai society, demanding loud and clear what their predecessors hardly dared to evoke by whispering: “A reform of the monarchical institution so that it remains truly outside politics and within the framework of the law”, according to the young lawyer Anon Nampa, figurehead of the movement.


The monarch and his wife, this Tuesday in Bangkok, in front of the Royal Palace. Photo Jorge Silva. Reuters

“For the demonstrators, it is the king who is in control of the country and pulls the strings, explains researcher Eugénie Mérieau, from the National University of Singapore. The military are just its fuses. Therefore, it seems unproductive to them to attack the military without attacking the monarchy, the root of the problem, on pain of an eternal restart. ” Protesters take significant risks that, perhaps because of their young age, they don’t always seem to appreciate. “I would never have thought that in my lifetime I would hear this kind of talk about the monarchy made in the public space”, admits, half admiration, half bewildered, historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, professor at Thammasat University at the time of the 1976 massacre.

In addition to painful memories, the current movement re-emerges the question of the polarization of Thai society, divided today between a fringe that claims to be pro-democratic, liberal, turned towards Western values ​​and individual freedoms, and conservatives for which unconditional loyalty to the monarchy represents the very foundation of Thai identity, the unity of the country and a bulwark against globalization. The clashes between these two Thailand punctuate the history of the kingdom : 1973, 1976, 1992, 2010. Each time, monster demonstrations against unelected governments, established by the army or the judiciary, were followed by a bloody crackdown.

In red and yellow

During the last decade, supporters on both sides had even identified themselves with a color code: on the one hand the Red Shirts, mostly peasants from the North-East, reformers, loyal to the former Prime Minister in exile. Thaksin Shinawatra, on the other the Yellow Shirts, conservative and ultraroyalist urban middle classes.

In 2014, the latter had mobilized en masse in Bangkok to demand the departure of the elected government considered corrupt and to call for a return of the army to power. With each generation, the ideological lines move, in particular on the question of the economic model, but the relationship with the monarchy remains the major point of crystallization of the tensions between the two groups.

© Athit Perawongmetha

On February 12, 2014 in Bangkok, demonstrators against the government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, then in exile. Photo Athit Perawongmetha. Reuters

For historian Thongchai Winichakul, this polarization dates from the Cold War and “the great powers like the United States, Russia and China bear an important part of the responsibility in the events of the Seventies ”. In other words, the fear of seeing Thailand fall into the hands of the Communists, just behind its Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese neighbors, would have justified the massacre of very marked student groups on the left, with the tacit blessing of the United States, support of the military.

Western influence

Today, in the context of the neo-cold war raging in Southeast Asia, the relationship would rather be reversed. While the generals lean towards the Chinese side, in particular for reasons of economic interests, the revolted students are closer to the large Western organizations for the defense of human rights. It is even one of the major criticisms formulated against them by their opponents, who accuse them of being under Western cultural and financial influence. Varong Dechgitvigrom, founder of the royalist group Thai Pakdee points out that several student leaders are part of NGOs such as Amnesty International or iLaw which he accuses of being financed by American funds. “There is a will by the United States of global cultural smoothing, he believes, which insists on individualistic values ​​and freedoms to the detriment of other values ​​such as the group or the family, which ultimately serves the ambitions of American corporations. “

The question of the representativeness of student demands across the country arises. “For the moment, the movement seems very urban, a little self-centered”, estimates Jean Baffie, researcher at the CNRS. Urban youth’s mastery of social networks and English, which gives them access to foreign media that their ideological opponents do not have, can sometimes give an exaggerated vision of the importance of their support within the population. The silent majority say they are mostly tired of politics ”. “If it’s not the army, it’s politicians who, over the last twenty years, have all turned out to be corrupt, sighs a young boss of a communications company. In the current system, it is always the richest who wins, is that what democracy is? ”


It is around social issues that the future of the movement is played out. Because while many criticize the tone used by students towards their elders, the poverty which has engulfed millions of Thais since the start of the health crisis, and the absence of any major social policy, are almost everyone agreed.

The students alone do not have the power of mobilization likely to make the government resign, which could be content to ignore them until the militants are demobilized. But things can take another turn if they ally themselves in a lasting way with the Red Shirts, the peasant masses of the North East, who came in numbers at the last demonstrations of September 19, which they, can block Bangkok as they already have. done in the past.

The leaders of the Pheu Thai party, supposed to represent the Red Shirts, have already indicated that “The future of Thai politics is played out in Parliament, and not in the streets”, but many militant sections have announced their intention to attend the demonstration.

It would still be necessary to be able to mobilize funds to provide a mode of transport to the capital for these poor peasants, often without personal vehicles. In the absence of an official alliance with a political party, students do not have this type of means. They can nevertheless compensate for a moderate mobilization in the street by a strategic and multilingual presence on the networks, which has already borne fruit: a few days ago, in an unprecedented intervention, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, recalled that the King of Thailand, who spends most of his time in Bavaria, should not carry out political actions from German territory.

Royal ceremony

This Wednesday promises to be tense. Around 5 p.m., King Rama X is due to attend a Buddhist ceremony at the Grand Palace, whose normal route includes a passage through the Monument to Democracy, where the demonstrators plan to meet.

The leaders have already announced that they will not obstruct the royal procession, but the confrontation is potentially explosive: the slightest lack of respect can give the military the legitimacy to use force. In addition, social conflicts in Thailand are very marked by the use of “third hand”, paid groups to sow chaos.

Now exiled in the United States, Thongchai Winichakul, who in 1976 implored the police with a megaphone not to shoot, said he was very afraid for these young people. He advises them to put forward the argument that “The reform of the Thai monarchy, and not its abolition, is the only condition for its survival.”


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