Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy: Was 2020 a Turning Point?

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy: Was 2020 a Turning Point?

DATE: 23 February, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Professor Duncan McCargo, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal



Gray Sergeant  00:01

Well, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the Henry Jackson Society Asia studies event on Thailand, the future of the pro-democracy movement there. My name is Gray Sergeant, I’m a research fellow here at the Asia studies Centre. Along with my research on Taiwan, China, I’m also Chair of Hong Kong Watch, a pro-democracy Group here in the UK. And you know, my eyes don’t wander too far beyond the China sphere but I know from following Hong Kong Watch on Twitter, that particularly interesting in events in Thailand, and I know that young people in Taiwan are also observing events, they’re closely to (inaudible) into a milky alliance, as they would say. And it’s great that there’s interest across the region, and I certainly hope that part of something that we can do here at the Henry Jackson society is spreading more interest about Thailand, here in London. I think casual observers will know that Thai politics seems pretty fraught with coups, the latest one being in 2014, and under a set of elections which kind of cemented the military’s role in 2019. Our news of Thailand sort of comes and goes, but there was a bit of a steady stream over 2020, as we saw a wave of protests, which began in response to the effective banning of the Future Forward Party, which happened a year ago today. Hence why we’ve decided to host an event about it. We saw protests on the streets, particularly young people demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister for constitutional reform, and also an increasing willingness to challenge the authority of the monarchy, which we are told is a taboo subject in Thailand. And that’s been part of the narrative that’s been put out there by the media. And we’ve also been told that COVID has somewhat dampened these protests, but the grievances that exist (inaudible) I’m very pleased to have here two people with great expertise in the area, both from an academic perspective, and an activist perspective. Our first speaker is Professor Duncan McCargo from the University of Copenhagen. He’s a professor in the political science department, and is director of the Nordic Institute for Asian politics. He has written extensively on Thai politics and has recently produced a new book on the Future Forward party called Future Forward the Rise and fall of the Thai Political Party. We’re also joined by Netiwit Chotiphaitphaisal. He’s a university student in Thailand, leader of his student union society, and prominent activist who first came to my attention when he invited Joshua Wong over to Thailand, and I know that he also publishes his own work and translate. So perhaps what we’ll do is we’re open up to both of our speakers to give 10 minutes each on their thoughts on what happened last year and the implications for 2021. And then we will throw open to a Q&A session where you can ask questions, if you look at the bottom of the zoom panel, there is a Q&A box. I encourage you to get your questions in early and you can type them in anonymously, or you can put your name and we will perhaps ask you to come speak and ask your question once we get to the Q&A section. So without further ado, I’ll ask Professor McCargo to open up the discussion for us.

Duncan McCargo  03:49

Thanks very much, indeed, a real privilege to have a chance to talk today about what’s been going on in Thailand. It’s really been a very, very interesting time in Thai politics. I wish I could tell you that we didn’t have many interesting times in Thai politics, but actually, I’ve been studying this subject for a while now. And just when you think everything is all perfectly fine and relaxed, something else happens. Its a rather striking coincidence that today is in fact the 30th anniversary of the 23rd of February 1991 military coup, which is the first coup I came across during my studies of Thailand. I wrote an op-ed about it for a publication this morning, very (inaudible) moment to remind us that military interventions in Thai politics are nothing new. Thailand has had a record number of military coups and a record number of constitutions during the past 90 years or so. So it’s a country that’s experienced an awful lot. It’s gone through many trials and tribulations in recent years, and if you want to understand why 2020 was so interesting, we need, first of all, to be a little bit familiar with what’s happened in 2020 and to have a bit of context. So at the risk of boring those who already know lots and lots about this, let me just give a few key pointers. So as Gray mentioned, last year, Thailand even managed to hit the British news headlines quite a bit, which is fairly extraordinary, largely on the back of a whole series of mass protests that took place, I’ve been trying to work out exactly how many of these protests there were. I’ve got 386 in the database, but I think there are still at least 30 or so that we haven’t added. So it’s more than 400 protests that we might roughly call student inspired protests that took place last year. This is a really remarkable phenomenon for a variety of reasons, not least because students and young people weren’t centrally involved in most of the previous recent rounds of protests, since, in fact, that ‘91 coup; the last 30 years, students have been around kind of in the background, but they’ve not been at the forefront of Thailand’s protest culture. That said, we’ve had loads of massive political rallies in Thailand over the past few years. Massive political rallies in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and ‘14, and then most recently, 2020. So it’s a real pattern that when things start to get sticky, they get difficult. Politics isn’t functioning very well, people in Thailand go out into the streets, and most typically they occupy for greater or lesser periods of time, central areas in Bangkok, and (inaudible) a lot of attention to themselves. And we saw those protests acted out repeatedly since the 2006 period. Most of those protests were what we would call very crudely protest between yellow and red; yellow being the royalist conservative pro military side of Thai politics, and red being the people who supported former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and later his sister Yingluck. So the country was divided very crudely along these colour coded lines. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and I can talk for hours and hours about why yellow and red isn’t a very helpful way of understanding Thailand, but given that we don’t have hours and hours that this is just a shortcut to thinking about what’s been going on. These two power networks, what I call network monarchy and the Thaksin network acting out their differences and disagreements on the streets, in events that typically end up in military coups, judicial interventions by the courts, and other kinds of political crises taking place and then periodic elections, which classically get overturned after a while by another military coup, and it all goes round and round in this vicious cycle of Thai politics. So the most recent iteration of the vicious cycle was the 2013/14 protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which was an elected government, with strong support from people in the north and northeast of the country, a lot of hostility from people in the south of the country, and Bangkok and central Thailand. That all came to a crashing end with a military coup in 2014. So the May 2014 military coup sets the stage for where we are now, at that point, a clique of military officers led by the current Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha seize power, and proceeded to install themselves in office saying that they were going to reform the country. They didn’t really reform all that much in the way that you might have expected them to, but they concentrated on overhauling the constitution and particularly the electoral system. Then, in March 2019, we had an election and the pro military side, lost, and then won, which was all a very frustrating and difficult episode for many people. On the one hand, the pro military party wasn’t the largest party, it was the Thaksin-side party that got the largest number of votes. But ultimately, the pro military party was able to stitch together a 19 party coalition, an extraordinary number of parties, most of which are not really parties at all their little micro parties with one or two MPs that are essentially available to the highest bidder. So this extremely pragmatic alliance of 19 parties was formed, despite the fact that a lot of time, voters had been expecting the opposition to win because they got the that there’s the Pheu Thai Party, the opposition party that got the most seats, and there was also Gray’s been kind enough to mention the shameless promotion of my book, this Future Forward Part, that I just wrote a book about with my former PhD student Anyarat Chattharakul. This was a new party that started in 2018, by a young, idealistic billionaire called Thanathorn, and he tried to introduce a different kind of political party to the Thai landscape with these ideas that were more progressive, idealistic, and had a very strong appeal to young people. So now you understand why there is a logic to what I’m telling you about, we’re getting back to the young people, young people became quite excited by this new party, the Future Forward party, and large numbers of them voted for it. So they got 6.2 million votes in that election in 2019, which is really a lot, and that made them the third largest party in Parliament. So these people who were very progressive, very critical, came out of nowhere captured the imagination of young people, and there they were sitting in Parliament as the third largest party. So although General Prayut and the other generals were able to stay in power by stitching together this coalition, they faced the constant irritant of these more critical opposition MPs, who were clearly driving them bonkers. And instead of saying, well, we’ll keep these people inside the system, they don’t have any real power, we’ll just, you know, put up with them and give them a certain amount of space in Parliament to operate, a very different solution was arrived at. So, on the 21st of February, almost a year and a couple of days ago last year, the Future Forward party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court, abolished. And this triggered a great deal of frustration amongst people who didn’t like the government, and especially younger people who supported that party. So immediately after the party was dissolved, a new phenomenon of student led protests started on campuses and even high schools across Thailand – you had at all of those protests that took place over the following month, in February and March – that first wave of student protests was really shut down by COVID-19 and the government’s emergency decree saying that people couldn’t gather in public in large numbers of public health reasons, although actually if you look at the details, you see that the first wave was starting to fizzle out a bit even before the emergency decree came out. So at that point, some of us are thinking okay, flash in the pan. They’re literally called flash mobs, these spontaneous protests that pop up unexpectedly, with very little formal organisation, I guess Netiwit can tell us a bit more about, you know, what the nature of the organisation of the student movement is, which is quite hard to get your head around, put your finger on. So it seemed like this was all the flash mobs were a flash in the pan, and it was going away, and COVID had come along, and everybody had sort of forgotten about the grievances of the students – until we got to the 18th of July, when we started all over again, with the second wave, it’s been like COVID, it has two waves. The second wave turned out to be massively bigger than the first wave, the second wave just ran and ran. So we’ve had, you know, more than 300 protests in this second wave, which peaked with over 120 protests in October, some of the protests were massive protests in the middle of Bangkok, others were taking place in provincial areas. Virtually every province in Thailand had a protest at one time or another. If you look at the distribution of the protests, which is very interesting, you’ll see them concentrated in larger towns, and particularly University towns. And it’s not just the university students, high school students have also been rising up. A big theme of the student protest has been resistance to authority in general. So it starts off with these demands about the Prime Minister, the Constitution, and “don’t harass us because we’re protesting”, but then morphs into a wider range of demands; high school students denouncing their teachers, and questioning why they’re having to wear these uniforms and why they’re subject to completely arbitrary and meaningless and disciplinary rules, which seem to occupy more of the teachers mental space than actually instructing them in anything useful. You’ve got generation-Z coming to the fore here, young people who are internet savvy, who are getting a lot of their information online, who read English well, who are connected, as you’ve noted with their peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan and other places around the world now very closely following what’s going on next door in, in what I’m still calling Burma – Myanmar. So these people have been, one of the founding figures of Future Forward told me in 2018 our party was set up to oppose seniority-ism. This is actually, the problem is older people; we’ve got to stop listening to older people and this is, of course, a massive overturning of everything that Thai society is built around where you have to address people who are older than you differently from people who are younger than you, where hierarchies of seniority and age are deeply encoded into everything. So this is an extraordinary phenomenon that’s taken place, and because the ultimate manifestation of that phenomenon was that on the 10th of August, Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, students proclaimed their 10-point critique of the Monarchy, calling for the Royal Institution to be reformed, and this is going into territory that no previous protests have really gone into in recent Thai history. So this was a remarkable thing. I can talk more about where it’s all going up, I’d probably better stop fairly soon. But the difficulty here is the students have sort of let the cat out of the bag, they’ve talked about all these issues, they talked about problems with the monarchy and the structures of society. It’s a massive agenda that they’ve raised. It’s also an agenda that excites a lot of people and terrifies others. Everybody in Thailand knows that these issues exist, and many people are sympathetic to quite a bit of what the students are saying, but if you want to build a mass movement that’s going to challenge a country where you have very entrenched power in the hands of the military and the bureaucracy, let alone the palace, it’s rather difficult to do that if you adopt a certain kind of rhetoric, which highlights the most provocative and sensitive issues and puts them centre stage. So what the students have been struggling with is how to build an alliance of people to support their demands. And we’ve seen towards the end of 2020, the protests starting to decline a bit partly again, because of the resurgence of COVID. And partly because some of the leaders have been arrested, and they’ve been facing a great deal of harassment and the movement itself is messy, internally divided and can’t quite figure out how to reposition or rebrand itself for 2021, which is the struggle that’s going on now. So that’s the that’s the background in a nutshell. And let me stop there.

Gray Sergeant  15:19

That’s great. Thank you very much. Fascinating overview of so many different more perspectives brought in, not just been a political issue, but a social issue, as well, perhaps something that us on the outside haven’t really noticed so far. Just to remind you that there is a Q&A box if you can start asking your questions down below so that we can kick off this discussion. After Netiwit has spoken, as Professor McCargo said, you know, the fascinating thing has been youth participation in these protests, relatively unheard of in Thai politics, but our next speaker was somewhat of a trailblazer and came to my attention, I think back in 2016. So he certainly been kicking up a fuss amongst young people for quite a while now. So it’d be fascinating to hear his perspective on how 2020 has developed and the way forward for young people.

Netiwit Chotiphaitphaisal  16:26

Okay, thank you for inviting me to speak. I would like to say first that maybe I’m not a really significant figure in the movement nowadays, neither am I affiliated with the future for our party or any political party. I’m just a general political observer, and I have limited access to the situation with my involvement in university politics, and some friends who are activists. Last year, young people came to the streets, I think, as much as any than ever happened in our history. Previously, the movement in Thailand grew slowly. Many years ago, I think my generation saw that Prayut Chan o Cha, who is now also a Prime Minister and the junta, is a crowd and not a serious threat for Thai society. So Thai people think its acceptable, and thinking that soldiers are more honest than politicians, and soldiers brings you I mean, people you need the rather than the (inaudible), because the experience of the red shirt and yellow shirt might bring some people to be somewhat pessimistic about Thai politics. But now I think it changed a lot since last year that young people now have a high political understanding and maybe the highest in Thai history. And their demands have broken the ceiling that had been limiting them before, now they want to [talk about] the taboos such as monarchy, clearly. There is no leader or person would think these new concepts will happen. Of course, I think it’s also partly we have to, thanks to the Future Forward party that has perhaps energised young people. The last election was the first time in Thai history that social media had been very important and significant, since because we don’t have election in Thailand before that for almost five years. So social media using, campaigning, is really new thing for society and [the] Future Forward Party used social media, quite intellectually. And, also, the charisma of the leader of the party, like Thanathron, Thanathorn is a billionaire, who, the narrative says, sacrificed himself for common causes. And Piyabutr, the Secretary of the party is the young academic, who we saw fail to pursue his dreams. This is a very promising, and the election became very much more intense, and I think it’s really exciting. Not, not just because we have the Future Forward party, but we also have another party named Thai Raksa Chart Party, which nominated Princess Ubolratana, the sister of the King, to be the Prime Minister. But finally the King, (inaudible) court made the party dissolve. But young people now think that it’s very interesting, very exciting, and the politics might be better if the princess can come. But, Future Forward party might be their hopes, and they can get involved with the junta already. So finally, because many factors like this, so Future Forward get more than 6 million votes and more than 80 seats in parliament, which they won a lot of in Bangkok, in the middle class area. In that period, I also have a survey of my students in university, with more than 3000 examples, and it’s clear that Future Forward, take almost 90% from young voters in my university. And when they came to Parliament, I think they also play the role very well. But some were also disappointed with them at that time, because they didn’t want to challenge the 112 article, or less majesty law, and they want to try to expand their base as much as possible. Okay, even you know, have some negotiations with the army general. So they want some compromise, but they still expose the society with the corruption of the military, or other things, which seems they also treat for Thai elites. So finally, they have been resolved, as you know, we have already one year anniversary of the dissolution of the party. At that time, also young people still, you know, don’t believe that the party will be dissolved. And I experienced myself because at that time, I was in the room, I was a teachers assistant, and I am lecturing about Thai politics to the students, 50 or 60 students. And I asked them, you know, we have some polls to ask them; What do you think [will be] the verdict of the court? Most of the students who were first time voters were thinking that the Future Forward party would not be dissolved. And if anything would happen, they will, the court will just, you know, say that the leader of the party had some something that they lend money, so the party should return the money to the (inaudible) or something like that. So it will not do any harm to the party. But finally, the party had been dissolved, and young people in my room at that time are very intense, and they you know, they’re not interested in listening to me talk anymore. After that, a few hours later, a lot of people, me, myself and others are very angry. And they went to a spontaneous protest in the Siam area. So this is the first time and it’s the biggest one in the many years before, the biggest that come in the few months after that. So this is the protests that sparked to a lot of places. And mostly I think at that time is still in the university area, because students at the time were still afraid, you know, they’re still afraid of jail, the law that prevents them to protesting in the public area. But after that, they did feel more normalised to protests in the streets. Now, I think young people that don’t want to protest in university anymore, they think that university is not a good place to protest, like when Future Forward happened, because if you want to challenge the society, you have to take this serious. (inaudible) young people are more radical at that at that time, but as Professor Duncan says, COVID caused everything to a halt for a while. But I think also the COVID factor has played a very important role, maybe more than Future Forward, because the economic hurt, you know, affects a lot of young people, and also their future. I think many people still think that politics have far from (inaudible) maybe it’s trendy for some young people. But when COVID happen, and when the government [haven’t done well from it], [for many] its life or death or something like that. And also at that time, there was a scandal about the King that [he spent all his time] in Germany, and people were locked down, so they can’t go anywhere. So they had to see news about that a lot, and they are very angry. And also, at that time, some exiled activist who was exiled in Cambodia had been kidnapped, and nobody knew where he has disappeared. But many things involved with the monarchy issue. So people, and also my students, colleges and university students, more to come to campaign, they think that we have to do, not just to talk about, Future Forward or anything, but we have to go to streets and to have campaign and have our say about our monarchy. And yeah, it’s predictable that after that, the Thai people, my friend, he campaigned for, you know, to collect many people to come to protesting after COVID. At that time, my friends thought “oh, I don’t think that many people will come”, but it’s really surprising for those who organised the protests that a lot of people come to the street at that time in the democracy movement, more than 5000 people. So it’s really sharp also for the movement that we have more creative things that people think on twitter or on Facebook, now they can use what they learn from internet, the slang words, something like that. And at that time, also have some factors like Black Lives Matter that have been, you know, around the world. So, young people use and adapt the tactics from the basis of Black Lives Matter or other things. And as Professor said, finally, they not just taught only about changing the constitution, but they think that we also have to, to change the relationship between the monarchy and society. (inaudible)

Gray Sergeant  29:37

An interesting point you ended on about the copying of tactics. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but I did see a photo maybe a week or so ago of some sort of democracy sculpture covered up by Thai activists that looked very, very similar to me of a similar thing that Hong Kong students did with black cloth over one of the prominent sculptures in Hong Kong. Certainly that exchange of minds going, and we’ve got a few great questions in the Q&A already, we’ll take perhaps the first three. I’ll invite Pietro and Matt to ask their questions. Perhaps you could just start off with the first anonymous one though, how will members of the Future Forward party reorganise? Will they form a new party or become a social movement? We’ll take all three and go and then we’ll come back to you to speak. Pietro, would you like to ask your question?

Pietro Masina  30:39

Hello. My question is for Professor McCargo. I don’t know if you can hear me. Hi, Duncan. The question is, you created the concept of network monarchy. But recently, you said you were not you didn’t know if that applied any longer to the recent context, if I’m not wrong. And the question is, how do you see the relation between King Vajiralongkorn and the youth? Do you thunk they share the same agenda? Or do you see tensions, contradictions? I have the impression that yes, there are tensions. But I would love to hear from you. What do you think?

Matt Phillips  31:33

Hi, Duncan. So I just really wanted to speak to some really the aesthetics of the protests and what appears to be from afar. I mean, obviously, we’re watching these on our computer screen, so it’s hard to get a sense of them. But what are quite clearly sort of middle class at least in the way in which they’re sort of articulating their message and the culture around the protest, the music, the plays, the poetry, even the role of cosplay, or feels to me to be quite distinctive and urban, and even perhaps a little exclusive. So with that in mind, I wondered what both of you thought about the possibility, the chances, of building that broad coalition, and particularly connecting with (inaudible) communities who of course, have their own very distinctive culture around protest that perhaps doesn’t so obviously lend itself to the same kind of same kind of forum.

Gray Sergeant  32:33

That’s great. Thank you, Matt. So three questions. If we perhaps start off with Professor McCargo to address any of the ones that you’d quite like to.

Duncan McCargo  32:45

Great, thanks very much. Really good questions? Well, the first one is very easy to answer, because Future Forward basically was reborn as a new political party called Move Forward. So 54 of the original 81 Future Forward, MPs are now in a new party. So basically, the leaders were all banned from politics for 10 years, which took out about 16 people, and some of whom were MPs and some of whom weren’t. And then a few of the MPs defected to other parties, possibly on the basis of financial incentives that we can’t speculate about for legal reasons. So they count. So we end up with a new political party, which is sort of Future Forward 2 which is not legally meant to have any connection with the old one. But in practice, it’s mostly the same people. And then, at the same time, the answer to your question is they did both because the people who are banned, Thanathorn and the immediate, the core leadership group formed the progressive movement, which is another organisation under which they operate. And under that banner, they were campaigning for local elections, because they believe that it was legally possible for them to put up candidates for local elections, but not national ones. So that’s that’s an easy question to answer factually. Yeah, there’s bound to be the odd network monarchy question. And that’s what I always get asked about. There’s this notorious article that I wrote, 15 years ago, I am currently writing a new article called network monarchy revisited, where I’m going to go back and explain, you know, what can be salvaged and what can’t from that idea, but Pietro has put me on the spot to give the executive summary of that now, and of course, the market is a black box, and we have no idea what’s going on inside it. And we have even less idea in this reign than we did in the last one. So we don’t know the relations between the king on the prime minister and stuff like this. What is very clear as the networks that exists, there are lots of people who are in the network. I think what’s much less clear is how the network operates. Because a key feature of network monarchy was kind of deniability. The king would make these rather vague speeches and people would go off and do things supposedly in his name, most of whom hadn’t talked to him about anything very specific in recent years, and may or may not have been doing what he wanted, and we never really knew. Now it doesn’t really work like that. If you do something on behalf of the monarchy, you better have approval from above, otherwise, you’re going to be in quite a lot of trouble that would see lots of people kicked out of their positions fairly unceremoniously. So the nature of agency within the network is very, very different. Now, it’s a much more top down command structure, and far less freelancing and improvising, creativity is tolerated then was under the ninth reign version of network monarchy. So that’s the quick answer to that. Yeah, I, I can answer all the questions, but I think the third question really has Netiwits name on it.

Netiwit Chotiphaitphaisal  35:39

Okay. For answering the question, how you’d let our students that really clearly with the cause and how to have a broad coalition connecting with each sub communities. And I think this is a very challenging thing, but before that, I think we had something like this emerge in the last year, before, you know, that the junta take quite really seriously. And maybe now they have the water cannon done to the people. Before that, the young people who never experienced politics before, they think that now we have space, like the state to be experimenting you know, some ways to connect like, what people are interested in, and they come together and it becomes trendy, something like that happens a lot. And also not just about a limited (inaudible) but some folk also have been quite popular. And they learn a lot from Richard, I think young people in Thailand also have been, you know, they feel that they have some shared heritage from native culture. When I went to the protest, I will see that Richard Fearless song, you know, some might say it’s our language, something like that. And it’s very joyful for young people who are never experienced something like that, and somebody that suddenly satisfies their authority. But after the police [received] so much violence, everything had changed. The fun thing that, you know, we experienced before have been changed, people now were more afraid. And they think that now is no time for a fun thing, it’s time for a serious thing. Which I think is it’s true that now the situation is quite intense, but if you want to connect to people, we have to you know, have broad cooperation, we have to have the culture, and not the middle class culture, which may communicate to young people effectively, but also if you want to communicate to the soldiers, police, who may be from rural areas and have to have some duty to, you know, to do something to protesters, maybe if protestors used, you know, for some cultural oriented, that have been before. So they might communicate well, but that situation is more serious. So this is really challenging for, for the organiser to do this.

Gray Sergeant  39:06

Thank you. We have a few more interesting questions, please do write them down in the Q&A box and I can read them out or ask you to speak if you’d like to address the anonymous question. We’ve covered network market theory. But there’s the follow up question. The second one was on the student movement, what impact of the strict enforcement of royal defamation charges is it having on the future of the Royal reformed cause? I suppose now the question coming out of that could be just what is the strict, you know, pushback from the regime having on protests that seem to have sparked it originally, but are now things just descending perhaps into more of a sporadic you know, flash mob kind of behaviour? Is that because of the regimes reaction or was that because of COVID? Paul?

Paul Rabb  40:04

Thank you. My question is about the international dimension. Do you think the protest movements in Thailand, Hong Kong and Myanmar, and perhaps other places too; there’s a lot bubbling up in the world right now, do you think these protest movements are learning from each other? And if so, how? And then do you think they can help to strengthen each other? Or are the local situations in these countries too different?

Gray Sergeant  40:30

Thanks. Thank you on a similar question of learning, we have another anonymous one saying with lots of prominent youth leaders being arrested, detained or charged, and the current government surviving a vote of no confidence, what do you think the pro-democracy movement should do? And the next days ahead of all, rather, you could change it into what do you think they will do, as well? So three questions. If you’d like to kick us off, Duncan.

Duncan McCargo  41:07

Okay, yeah. It’s clear that this party links on to the previous question to them, the style of the protest is changing. It’s very frustrating to be grounded in Copenhagen while these fascinating things are going on in Thailand and not be able to see what’s happening myself. What I can say is that because of this boom in social media, and also the extraordinary online news reporting that’s going on, you can just watch live on YouTube or Facebook Live or something, a lot of what’s going on, I’d encourage people to see that for themselves. Because the media reports are always sort of, inevitably, summaries. If you look at the Latynina protests the other week, where very, very organised protesters with sort of guards wearing dark uniforms, were charging at police officers who are running away and then you get very, very aggressive reactions back from the police. We’ve moved on rather from Hamtaro, the Japanese cartoon hamster and Harry Potter and the themes and memes of the sort of July-August period, it’s a much tougher kind of vibe out there amongst these protests now, and that reflects a ratcheting up of various things, a ratcheting up on both sides. But the ratcheting up from the student side has particularly come from the use of much more heavy handed legal measures against the protest leaders, pulling people into charging a bit less (inaudible) charging them with sedition offences that carry long jail terms. And initially, the courts seemed to be extremely reluctant to lock people up very long, we’re just letting them go. And there’s now been a change of heart on the part of the courts who are hanging on to people. So we aren’t, we’re in a situation of, you know, Night after night, the same leaders would be arrested in a day or two later, they’ll be back on stage, supposedly on bail, and it would all be okay. And that kind of realm of ambiguity has been closed down now. And that’s making it much, much tougher. And this is it’s clear that there was a decision taken over the past few weeks to adopt a much harder line on the protesters. But this habit that they had of, you know, popping back up again, after they’ve been briefly incarcerated, was starting to irritate the powers that be and would no longer be tolerated. So things have become much, much more difficult as a result of this ratcheting up of the legal charges, which is there. And then you get protests, which are not so much protests about the issues, but protests about people being locked up and about the abuse of these laws. So we’re getting away from what the protests were really supposed to be about. And you have this incident where the police use water cannons, and then there was a revenge attack on police headquarters, where the front of the police headquarters was sprayed by protesters. So this is not a very constructive dynamic that’s operating, where the state side has become more and more repressive, and the students have become more and more frustrated and angry as a result. It’s an unfortunate spiral, which is very, very far from constructive. Maybe Netiwit would like to respond to any of the questions.

Netiwit Chotiphaitphaisal  44:33

Okay, I really take the questions about international learning, what we learn from each other, for me as an observer, I think, is certainly that Thai and Burma have not been very connected with each other. Because I don’t know maybe it’s a cultural barrier or other thing, when we are very close, you know, and we have NGOs, people who are working with the Burma, NGOs or activists for a long time. But it seemed that it hasn’t been connected until the protests happening in Burma a few months ago, that now Thai people are interested in the colleges of Burmese people. But for Taiwan and Hong Kong, I think this also about the culture. And young people in Thailand, now, a lot of people have been, you know, involved with the culture, that superstar or singers or something, have to have colleges to speak out for democracy. So you go to Twitter, you’ll see that now we have a lot of people now who are interested in politics. And also they think that their idol has to come to speak about protecting human rights. And so because our culture has been a very important factor also. And also that for the learning countries, like Hong Kong or Taiwan, I think it’s still not very fruitful, even we have the name like Mutual Alliance happening, but if you see what the learning, seminar or dialogue between the country, between activists, I think is still, we still have some language of how to (inaudible) what I am trying to do. Like this, but we still have a very long way to go to make Mutual Alliance and other things to, to have to have real impact in our society. And for what we should do, I’m here now, as an observer, I think that there’s a lot of leaders now that think, you know, they have some debate in the movement that we have to retreat forward to reform monarchy, we have to make a priority first to you know, overthrow the government. So now it’s become a debate, again, among activists, which I think many activists also want to, you know, push agenda about monarchy, you know, they want because it’s [already been normalised], but they also afraid now, of the situation in Thailand. And, you know, as Professor Duncan said before that when they have been on their (inaudible), but now it’s over, and maybe have some signal from the police to some media person, and they said to the court, and so it’s fine now is over for the bail our kid. So, this is still very difficult to predict, but a new thing that happened few weeks ago, also, I think it’s maybe make some people excited for the movement is the application, the technology like (inaudible), that now you know, have been communicate way for young people to you know, to talk about the monarchy or other things. And yesterday, it had been a big surprise for people also because Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand, he joined a clubhouse, and he is quite a historical person, for young people now, people talked to him and he answered their questions. So technology like clubhouse also might play some important role now, and you know, and the government, they also want to curb that information, so that technology (inaudible). But no, but also for me, for me to predict the future, I think that they’re concerned about the state; our technology may be also something that we cant avoid.

Gray Sergeant 50:30

That’s great, thank you very much. Well, we have about eight minutes left, I’m a little bit trying to cheat and get a couple of my questions in because I’ve been frantically making notes. It’s all been really, really interesting. I was just wondering about this divide between the more traditional society and perhaps younger, more progressive, more radical people with their ideas and reconciling that and the risk of overreaching with the demands. And I’m just wondering, how about how the pro-democracy movement are going about reaching out to perhaps some more cautious or traditional sections of Thai society. And then also whether or not there was a divide within the pro-democracy party’s movement itself, between an older generation who perhaps don’t want to push too hard on monetary reform, and the younger activism, whether or not that that sort of divide can be reconciled and they can work together? And the final question would be the role of the children of elites perhaps, and, and what side would they take in this, I read an article a couple of months back, saying that largely, you know, very well educated children of elites, people involved in politics, tend not to get involved or say anything about the situation in Thailand. But I don’t know if that’s changed since. So, we’ve got about five minutes or so. If either, if you’d like to address any of them questions, it’d be much appreciated.

Duncan McCargo  52:12

Perhaps I can have a go at those questions and sort of the last one about where we go from here. So look, you know, the government’s horrendously unpopular, very few people have much time for the Prime Minister anymore. Most of the people in the cabinet command very little public respect, the economy is a complete disaster. A country that’s very heavily, heavily dependent on tourism and international business of a kind that’s ground to a halt in significant sections. So people are really suffering economically, and they can’t stand the government, and they have serious doubts about its legitimacy. And almost nobody thinks the Prime Minister is doing a good job. I mean, the students should be pushing at an open door. But instead of concentrating on this open door, they’re talking about the monarchy, which I completely agree, it’s the Gordian knot, you know, if you can cut the Gordian knot, you can solve Thailand’s political problems, and reconfigure the whole thing and blah, blah, blah, that clearly is, is not going away as a problem. But you can’t get to the monarchy because the monarchy has the military and the present government and the present political system ringed around it. So first of all, you have to stall the Citadel by breaking through the outer fortifications that the monkey has erected around itself. So what the students really need to do is to form a broad alliance with people who agree with them, people, workers who’ve lost their jobs, people who are economically very disadvantaged because of COVID, people who used to be aligned with the red shirt movement, and even people who used to be aligned with the yellow shirt movement. And this is the problem where Future Forward are so successful is because the colours orange, you notice on the cover of the book, it’s a combination of yellow and red. If the students associate themselves only with the pro tax in red shirt side, then the people on the other side will be alienated and they won’t want to go along with it, because they’ll fear that this is just an action replay of something that we’ve seen before. So, herein lies the problem. The leadership of the students have been divided. It’s not generational, though the people who are really pushing the monarchy stuff, actually not students at all, some of them their 30 year, eight year old lawyer and now as a 16 year old guy who was in general as much as they are amongst the too late they’re not students even is the older people who are the most radical ones, not the younger people, necessarily. So it’s not a straightforward generational thing at this point. It’s a split within the movement about tactics. Do we go for the jugular, which is we have to confront this monarchy problem or otherwise we’ll never sort anything out. Or, do we go for some low hanging fruit to mix my metaphors and the most horrendous way, And the going for the jugular has, it’s, it’s extraordinary, you know, we had a king Who is not in Thailand very much, and is now decided that he needs to spend a great deal more time there and needs to go around behaving in a very different way. So the monarchy has been disciplined by the movement, it’s a very substantial success of the movement, but nobody’s really talking about much. But disciplining the market is not what you really want, because then people may start actually liking the monarchy better. So ironically, by disciplining the monarchy, you’ve undermined your own position as a movement, which is an unintended consequence of the protest. So that hasn’t really worked. So you now have to focus on the really vulnerable targets, which are, the government is a sitting duck at the moment to take this government down, and then start thinking about the next step. That’s, that’s what you need to do. But it’s not what the leadership of the movement has really been able to get his head around.

Gray Sergeant 55:51

And Netiwit, your thoughts on that to round us up for the day?

Netiwit Chotiphaitphaisal 55:58

Maybe it’s from I believe, maybe it’s really important is the movement might be to be a fox, (inaudible), they should know many things to know, if needing to know only one big thing. So, I think that the movement now, they are focusing too much, maybe on the monarchy, but all the other issues also have to be, you know, the movement, the small or other thing movement that pushing these, these things. And I think that now, the Thai society, even the old elder people, or young people, now, they think that you know, all the protesting is not enough, maybe they want to have some concrete things like how to change economics for the better, how to have, you know, short term, maybe certain (inaudible) might be the long term, but short term, medium term, what’s the plan that we are proposing to the people. So, now, it’s time maybe for rationalisation. I think every side now wants rationalization. How you can play the game, you know, this is quite a game now, in order some topic now, might be a taboo for a while, but everybody has to pretend to play the fair game. Because if they don’t play the fair game, I think they will lose, you know, the monarchy might be lost very fast. Or the protester now, which now is more weakened can maybe restore the parliamentary game, and, you know, the civil society to, you know, to work on their small issues, and, etc, also important things that the movement had to, you know, pay more attention to.

Gray Sergeant  58:17

That’s great. Well, thank you so much that and that takes us perfectly up to our hour. I’d like to thank both our speakers Netiwit and Professor McCargo for their time today. Really fascinating insights, and, obviously, some of the best people to speak to about these issues. As I said, you know, throughout 2020, we had rumblings throughout the media about things going on in Thailand, and the conclusion was, you know, something big is happening and suddenly, it’s changing. But for me, at least from this event, it would seem that the changes are much more profound than I first thought that at a much more wide reaching. And not not just politics, but society. And as Netiwit just mentioned, even economics and real discussion about the future of Thailand has been started. So I certainly hear from the Asian Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society will be following events in Thailand closely, and no doubt, hosting an event hopefully in the near future, as things unfold. For those of you watching, thank you for coming along today. Again, thank you to the speakers. We’ll be having an event on Myanmar next week. I’m sure we’ll see similar discussions about social movements, protests, tactics, and I like and that should prove to be very interesting. So once again, thank you very much for coming.


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