The Gathering Storm in Thai Politics
Bank Lohachitpitaks '22
One Friday evening, an unexpected mob of college students formed on the concrete square at the entrance of the Faculty of Political Science of a well-known agricultural college, the Kasetsart University in Thailand. They wore black shirts with surgical masks to protect their identity and were seen riotously flashing LED lights from their smartphones. This was a flash-mob rally, one of the many flash-mobs that now appear daily on campuses across the country. What could the students possibly want or fear in a “free society” like Thailand? Apart from the fact that they were voicing out their demands against the corrupt military government, all the while, under the “protection” and watchful eyes of policemen who carried assault rifles and periodically took down names. It felt freakishly familiar, like a scene fresh off a communist purge from the 70s during the height of the Vietnam War, where thousands of university students were murdered and exiled in the name of “freedom.” Thailand’s dark history of political suppression under military interventions and human rights abuse are deeply bruised on the annals of modern Thai politics. The growing fear now is that the same grim episode of history will repeat itself once again in 2020.
There is rising political tension in all corners of the Thai society. People from all walks of life are now enjoined in a nation-wide effort to demonstrate their voice and dissatisfaction against the military junta. People, of all ages, and every lifestyle imaginable, defy their government in ways ranging from middle schoolers holding anti-government signs on the playground to Buddhist monks preaching democracy in Buddhist colleges.
This dissatisfaction, expressed through social media posts and hashtags, gave rise to a new political phenomenon, where social media platforms turned into lush, safe spaces for political expression. Catch phrases like saveDemocracy or IWantNirvanaButAlsoDemocracy are seen online daily. Memes and internet comic strips are regularly shared across many social media outlets, mocking and snubbing members of the military and government. We are observing a surge in political activism and awareness from the new generation Thais, whose voices were previously subjected to prolonged, fierce censorship. This burst of suppressed energy could potentially be very destructive.
Since the military junta took power in 2014, after a long and violent anti-government protest against the democratically elected left-wing “Pheu Thai Party” (PTP) in 2013, the promise of democratic reform and vigorous crack-down on corruption is far from being realized. The people want change. The junta promised a quick and decisive return of power to the people within 5 months back in 2014. However, as time passed, the junta refused to take further actions to democratize the system. Only after five whole years was there a general election.
In March of 2019, Thai political life is fresh with public frenzy and great anticipation. A general election was held after the constitution was rewritten by the military. Many newbie parties appeared on the political sphere. Some were led by young, unseen faces with new strength for the promise of reform. Some promised to decentralize the government and reduce the role of the military in Thai politics. Some promised free, higher-level education and longer maternity leave, while some promised the legalization of cannabis.
A prominent, new face in the Thai-party politics was the Future Forward Party (FFP), led by young business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, nicknamed “the people’s millionaire.”
The FFP is a phenomenon in the modern Thai political sphere amidst the growing strength of judicialization; used, not for judicial justice, but for achieving incontestable political legitimacy. The FFP gained tremendous support from young Thai, Gen-Z voters. The FFP arrived with the promise to bring back “true democracy” by re-writing the constitution, combating corruption, reforming the army and providing business-orientated policy to help recover Thailand’s failing economy.
However, in mid-February of this year, after the FFP was accused of illegally handling campaign loans from the Party’s founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the Constitutional Court of Thailand ordered the party to disband, and its executive members were banned from politics for 10 years.
This caused outrage in the party’s supporters, students and pro-democracy activists. Supporters of the opposing party were also caught by this wave of unrest. This led to the picture of flash-mobs and protests today, where more and more academic institutions and left-wing Thais vow to join the mob against the military Junta.
In all the six aching years that the military Junta, under General Prayut Chan-o-cha, stayed in power, their prestige of trust, time, and power were spent on purging political enemies, rewriting the constitution, extending their term and spending billions of dollars’ worth of tax money on “money giveaway” campaigns to buy voters’ voices from the grassroot poor. Not to mention millions of dollars spent on buying “shallow water” submarines when Thailand’s deepest gulf area measures only 190 ft. deep. This is only one of the countless absurd military spending budgets to bolster “military confidence” against a non-existent foreign enemy. These incompetent populous policies are only a few examples of the military government’s inept ability to run the country.
Numerous leaked corruption schemes routinely appear on the news. These schemes span from local officials embezzling public school lunch money to national parliament authorizing illegal “holiday housing” projects for court officials in reserved forest areas, encroaching on the National Forest Reserves. Until recently, members of the Prime Minister’s cabinet were revealed to have connections with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal or the 1MDB. Despite extensive public outcry and an attempted vote of no-confidence on the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the regime managed to stay on.
Through it all, Thailand and its half-baked democracy moved forward to attempt to secure a better future after decades of political unrest. The prevailing issues that haunt every government, military, or civilian are the questions of legitimacy and their ability to put bread (rice) on the tables of ordinary people. The Thai economic boom in the late 80s and early 90s is still well embedded in the minds of Gen-X and millennials alike. People yearn for a time of democratization and the move to freedom. These are, perhaps, the driving forces that fueled the hopes and dreams of“democracy-fighters” and students, all trying to find their place in society, against the current regime who pushes back, hard, to shrink that hope into oblivion.