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Student protests flare across Thailand

The banning of the liberal-reformist party Future Forward has led to a new wave of dissent — one that is tentatively beginning to embrace anti-royalist sentiment, reports GABRIEL ERNST from Bangkok

IN the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the green university grounds by the entrance gate were all of a sudden flooded by a sea of masked students, holding banners and placards in a rare display of protest against the Thai state.

In a week when almost every major university in Thailand saw protests, one banner read: “Where is the king/freedom of Thailand?” Another simply: “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” – a clear reference to the French revolution.

While many of these messages point to anti-royalist sentiments –  in a country where criticising the monarchy is an imprisonable offence – the protests were in response to the banning of political party Future Forward, to which the students were a key demographic.

Demonstrations have even emerged at universities in London and Edinburgh. Primarily organised by students studying overseas, they too have tried to be clear that their issue is not primarily with the banning of the Future Forward party, but the state of democracy in Thailand as a whole.

2019 saw the first national Thai election in nearly a decade, after years of political instability followed and five years of military dictatorship. The military junta leadership, rebranding themselves as the political party “Pallang Pratcharat” took the prime minister's office under dubious circumstances.

However, there was a surge of popularity behind a new face to Thai politics, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and Future Forward was thrust to the front of the democracy movement in Thailand.

The kingdom’s elite power-brokers did not take kindly to their new adversaries and the king was rumoured to despise them.

Thanathorn, a self-described liberal capitalist, was deemed a radical by Thai conservatives, as they did everything in their power to delegitimise and crush the upstart party.

Despite these attempts, Future Forward provided an upset, taking a surprising number of seats alongside their allies, the long-term pro-democracy, “Red Shirt” party — political populists Phue Thai and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s old party.

Yet this wasn’t enough to block former junta leader Prayut from winning the prime minister’s office, as Prayut had previously appointed 250 unelected military officers to parliament with the same voting rights as elected MPs.

Last November Thanathorn was barred from becoming a member of parliament after he was found guilty of owning shares in a media firm while running as a MP — which breaches election rules. This verdict was widely seen as catching the party leader out on a technicality as he had sold his shares in V-Luck Media — but apparently failed to provide an adequate receipt.

The response to Thanathorn’s conviction was dismal at best, with a whirlwind of twitter hashtags but no organised protests, and downtown Bangkok has remained eerily quiet since the election.

There was, however, a protest “fun-run” organised by Future Forward, which was held at 5:30am deep in the suburbs of Bangkok. A far cry from the well-organised, aggressive street-protest tactics of the Red Shirt movement in the last decade.

This timid behaviour from Future Forward did not come as a surprise. Ever since its inception, the party has attempted to follow the complex rules of Thai electioneering to the letter, while its conservative opponents flagrantly break them, ironically, with one member of the conservative Palang Pracharath Party still holding shares in a media company to this day.

Future Forward nonetheless grew to be extremely popular, particularly among the middle-class youth. This popularity is fairly easy to explain through their leader’s charm and charisma — as well as through elements of class snobbery towards the Pheu Thai Red Shirts — and lingering conceptions of corruption within the old vanguard of Thai democracy.

After surviving repeated threats of dissolution ever since their inception, it was on February 21st 2020 that Future Forward was forcibly dissolved by the Constitutional Court and its executive members banned from politics for 10 years.

The official reason was a loan from Thanathorn to his party, which supposedly breached fundraising laws — an intentionally vague rule open to interpretation. This was another instance in which the Junta-backed Palang Pratcharat party flagrantly broke the law to no consequence by fundraising before they were permitted to by the electoral commission.

These countless and continued injustices are what has led to the protest movement among students. However, the anti-royalist message permeating through it is unexpected. Hatred of the ruling military junta is nothing new, and murals of junta-leader turned prime minister Prayut are routinely mocked and defaced.

However, in recent months hatred of Prayut has turned into a quiet disdain for the royalty who many students rightly see as being the real power behind the scenes.

Criticism of the monarchy is strictly prohibited by law, leading to protestors having to be subtle and discreet in their disapproval, typically by referencing the French Revolution and through art.

During the rally in Chiang Mai, as a police car drove by a chant of “Are you afraid? — We’re not afraid!” rang out from the students. The memory of the violent repression of students still lives on in the Kingdom, with today's protests echoing those of October 1976 when a massacre of over 100 student demonstrators triggered a lengthy era of clamping down on free speech in Thailand.

There was also the more recent crackdown of Red Shirt protests in 2010 which saw a death toll of near 100 and included brutal scenes such as military snipers shooting unarmed protestors sheltering in a temple.

One high-profile student activist, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal told me: “The students are desperate.”

“They’re fed up with tricky constitutions, courts, elections, politicians and universities. They want real reform, not from elites but from the voices of the people.

“We demand the dissolving of parliament to give fair and free elections and a change to the unbearable rules in the constitution.”

However, to really challenge power in the Kingdom any movement will need greater support outside of the student community, and it seems unlikely that the working class, who historically formed the bulk of previous protests against the state, will come out for Future Forward.

The students’ goal of dissolving parliament is also unlikely to be achieved, although with more protests scheduled for next week, Chotiphatphaisal is optimistic. He says that the protest movement is “still burning”.

Many of those in the liberal pro-democracy movement may now feel like they have nothing left to lose since Future Forward’s dissolution.

Whether or not this will lead to a more radical strain in the protests we shall soon see. But for now the anti-royalist messages show a new side to the Thai democracy movement, one which is posing a new threat to the ruling elite.

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