Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Rangsiman Rome
Any writing about the state and forms of political organising and civil resistance in Thailand today is indelible from the conditions lived since the military coup from 22 May 2014. Yet, to understand Thailand’s latest coup d’etat, I share a few words about the present-day context, specifically some of the consequence of the former coup on 19 September 2006.
The 2006 coup was to eliminate then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of the Thai Rak Thai Party. His policies, e.g. the “30 baht health care program” and “village fund,” made him highly popular among people from the impoverished North and Northeast region. Yet he was not favored by the upper middle class, mostly from the capital, as well as Thai elites, who are related to a higher political institution (which I cannot mention). These people strongly believe that Thaksin is anti-monarchy, a single claim, sufficient however, for many Thai people to hate someone. Democrat Party’s supporters also buy into this claim about Thaksin. They have used time and again the same accusation against opponents. Following the 2006 coup, the Red Shirts emerged — an anti-coup, pro-democracy civil movement supporting, and supported by, Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party.
Even after a major election victory of Pheu Thai Party in 2007 (then People’s Power party, the revival of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai), the conflict and political division between Royalists and pro-democracy remained. Over the years the Red Shirts held protests, as did the opposition civil movements, the Yellow shirt (supporting and also supported by elites and the higher political institution). Discord grew deeper as Democrat Party took over the Premier’s seat without elections. In 2010, over 70 civilians were killed in a violent army crackdown on a months-long Red Shirt sit-in in Bangkok’s financial and shopping district. No government official has yet been held accountable for the deaths, although Pheu Thai Party won an election victory in 2011.
The coup d’etat on 22 May 2014, with support from Thai elites, was one more attempt to wipe out the Red Shirts, Shinawatra’s supporters, and other pro-democracy citizen groups which are not affiliated with political parties. Yet, after the 2014 coup there was no sign of opposition neither from the Red Shirts nor from Shinawatra’s party. Both seemed to submit to the overthrown power. The anti-coup movement that has appeared since, is primarily organised by student activists and other citizens’s groups. For example, League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) is a student activist group that questions the current political structure and fights against abuse of office by the government, opposes the coup d’etat and unjust laws. This and other movements are smaller in capacity when compared to the massive Red Shirts, but they are truly independent from political parties. Any affiliation of a movement to an existing political party can serve as grounds for attack regardless of the intention of the movement. Political parties may also refuse to stand for their supporters. For example, many Red Shirt members were blamed and charged with severe accusation just because they defended Pheu Thai Party in this period, yet the party did nothing to protect them.
Protest against the 2014 coup started the day after. Already on 23 May, students from many universities and citizen activists came to the streets to join the resistance. For around three weeks, the anti-coup movement was intense and widely supported by the people. The number of protesters had reached thousands at its peak.
Social media has been the major factor in the current anti-coup movement. In the first two weeks after the coup, this proved to be a successful method. Students and activists could reach out to many to join the resistance. Publicising, however, through social media inadvertently led the Junta to the appointed destination, cracking down on protesters, sometimes even by force. Leaders of the anti-coup groups were summoned to report to the Junta, arrested, or threatened, and resistance has since been much harder to organise. Some members from different groups continue to be regularly visited in their homes by military personal for disciplining conversations. Others are prosecuted for defying the junta orders, an act often interpreted by the ad-hoc junta-led tribunals as violation of lèse majestè, an offence that can lead to a lifetime imprisonment. As a result, many from resistance groups have fled the country.
Today, resistance is difficult to voice. Any political public gathering of more than a few people is considered violation of the junta orders. Any event that opposes the coup is interrupted or forced to cancel. For example, in May 2015 at the one-year anniversary of the last coup, students and citizens intending to join a peaceful, symbolic event, were injured and arrested by police officers. Most recently, the junta forced the cancellation of a talk on human rights at a journalists’ club in Bangkok. Overall, resistance now appears subtly, in events that are not straightforwardly against the coup. Events like eating sandwich or watching the Hunger Games were to show those who think the Coup has no effect on their lives that even normal activity can be disrupted under the dictatorship. The most blatant act might be the Thammasat University’s annual political parade. Thammasat has a leading role in Thai political history, so there was an expectation of students to speak up against the government. Yet, organising is becoming more and more difficult due to surveillance and direct threats to activists. For example, although the junta stated that no charges will be made against the students after the crackdown on the May 2015 gathering bemoaning the coup, few students are now summoned and likely to have charges raised against them. Moreover, people are afraid and discouraged to join or support the resistance as the movement is slandered through mass media and social network. Wrong accusations are that the anti-coup movement is backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, or the movement is another form of the Red Shirts, a movement rejected by the middle and upper class in the country capital Bangkok. A smear campaign has been launched to discredit students and citizens activists, mostly on the Internet as a kind of a witch hunt.
Students and citizens are working hard to defend and counter the smear campaign, yet it seems insufficient. Lies, smearing, and defamation are our major obstacle to grow the resistance among the people. Thai society will tune out what we are trying to say if they are led to believe that political parties and our cause is not purely people’s. That is why, our movement, in my view, must remain faithful to its cause and persist. We want to speak to our sympathizers, but also to those who oppose us.
People in Thailand continue to face absurdities from the Junta daily.
We will continue fighting!