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Thai Protest Endgame: Is violence inevitable?

Pro-democracy demonstrators gather during a protest, in Bangkok, Thailand October 17, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

After years of false starts, the fuse has finally been lit. Tens of thousands have filled the streets in scenes that recall the historical turning points of 1973, 1976, 1992, 2010 and 2014. That very repetitiveness gets at a painful truth – apart from 1932’s revolt against absolute monarchy by a small group of progressive military and civilian elites, the unending cycle of dictatorships, youth-led uprisings, crackdowns and victory is lubricated with blood.

But 2020 isn’t any of those years. The youth today little resemble their forebears, and their loud demands for reining in the reigning monarch are unprecedented. Likewise, the military, well versed in history’s lessons that bloodshed brings defeat, shows great restraint.

With Thailand again at a crossroads and the threat of violence looming, we asked commentators and thinkers to game out where the protest movement is headed – and if a peaceful resolution is possible. Their comments were edited for space and clarity in this Coconuts Bangkok and BK Magazine collaboration.

An unprecedented crossroads’

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, political scientist, Institute of Asian Studies

The most likely scenario is that the authorities do not concede at all to any of the demands, which will lead to a long stalemate. Actually, this would do more damage to the ruling elites than the protesters. The repression of protesters will only lead to increased support for them. As we saw after the Oct. 16 demonstration, when police dispersed the crowd with water cannons, people weren’t afraid and didn’t stay home the next day. Oct. 17 and Oct. 18 saw even more protesters join. We might be able to see demonstrations that expand and go beyond the lines that separate royal nationalists from so-called “national haters.” … The current situation is very difficult to predict.

I don’t know if I can answer that these ongoing protests will end with violence. I think Thai society has arrived at a point we might have never seen before. Some people question if this is like the 1932 revolution or the Oct. 14, 1973, uprising. It is, in some ways. But while many elements resemble past events, there are new variables such as technology, the global political context, palace dynamics, and even the protest demographics. With these variables, it’s difficult to predict whether the history will repeat itself. It might, but it’s also possible that we’re reaching an unprecedented crossroads in Thai history. I think, though, this unpredictability is interesting, because it means we’re reaching a new phase of history.

‘There’s going to be a coup’

Sondhi Limthongkul, former media mogul firebrand and founder of the Yellowshirt movement

Politics is all about compromise. But in Thailand, when you talk about compromise, you’re talking about the rich and powerful against the poor and [powerless]. Thailand has had a lot of confrontations like this. The way out has always been a coup d’etat. It’s an evil cycle. You have a coup d’etat, the people rise up against the military, the military steps back, there’s a new election, and then there’s a deadlock again. Nothing changes.

Now, this protest is different. This protest has, for the first time, been able to utilize the power of social media. And it’s the first time, too, that the monarchy has been attacked – a direct and outright attack. It is quite clear this is going toward the abolishment of the monarchy. For instance, there’s an article in the constitution which outlaws criticizing the king and queen. If they eradicate this article, it means maybe 10,000 people can give the middle finger to the king or queen, call them “bastard” or “asshole,” whatever [they say] now. But what I think is happening is the empire strikes back… and the students will lose, because most people in Thailand still believe we need the monarchy. I think there’s going to be a coup d’etat. Very soon.

‘Grief and pain’

Thitinan Pongsudhirak,  director, Institute for Science and International Security

There is no such “ending” … only an ongoing evolution, where one ending leads to subsequent directions and junctures. What besets Thailand now is similar to tensions and challenges to absolute monarchy 100 years ago. The protest movement then among newly educated and up-and-coming bureaucratic elites, civilian and military, replaced entrenched absolutism with fledgling constitutionalism. Yet the monarchy was able to later regroup and regain ground in a symbiotic relationship with the military by the late 1950s. The extraordinary force of personality under King Bhumibol and his 70-year reign ultimately placed the throne at the apex of Thai socio-political hierarchy amidst regional communist expansionism.

As Thailand kept communism away and ushered in economic development, the resulting conservative political order from the Cold War era now faces bottom-up challenges from younger generations fed up with crises, coups and constitutions that preserved the status quo. These young Thais under 40 want to reclaim a future held hostage by the old order. The destination is clear. Thailand will need to set up a political system with democratic legitimacy and reformed monarchy. The force of history ensures it, but getting there will likely be contentious, full of grief and pain.

Government must change course

Fuadi Pitsuwan, political science fellow, Chiang Mai University

The government will have to realize that the onus is on them to not escalate the conflict. The more the authorities try to suppress the movement, the more it’ll get stronger. I am hoping for a compromise. I am hoping the Parliament will quickly amend the Constitution, which should incorporate some of the protesters’ demands. Anything short of that would not end well. I don’t mean just the loss of lives, but the legitimacy of the government and the Thai state internationally.

Violence doesn’t have to be inevitable. In the end, I hope the government changes course and listens to the demands. If the government does not … then violence is inevitable. Kudos to the protest leaders though that they are trying to prevent the loss of lives from happening.

As for calls to reform the monarchy, I think every institution needs to reevaluate its place within the Thai polity, including the military and the monarchy. We need to find a new consensus among different political players, particularly between the monarchy and the people. We used to have that in the past. Every institution needs to adapt to survive the Information Revolution underway globally.

Win over the middle

Tripop Leelasestaporn, political commentator and online provocateur

It would be naive of me to say that there will be no violence involved in changing society, and I don’t think a 100% peaceful protest can pressure Prayuth and his regime either.

Despite historical precedents, including October 1976, I don’t think the event will lead to bloodshed like the Thammasat Massacre. People are no longer that ignorant, and they’re less easily manipulated by the media. It wasn’t fear of losing the monarchy that gave rise to the massacre, but rather the government stoking fears of communism. Now it’s another story.

I don’t believe that the king’s abdication is a consensus goal of the protesters. The idea of making Thailand a republic has been circulating, but their primary goal is to reform the monarchy, not wipe it out. It is undeniable that the royal family has been an integral part of Thai society, and the old propaganda remains deeply entrenched in people’s thinking. The movement will need more centrists who want change but are opposed to becoming a republic. Many are afraid to speak it aloud, so we need to make sure that there’s nothing seen as wrong about changing our royal family. These demands are not against the monarchy, they are in fact to make sure it can be still relevant in our society.

Respect the majority

Channarong Krutto, Thai Pakdee (Thai Loyalists) group

Since the 1932 revolution, there have been many coups and uprisings by the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) and by military officers. But the recent two coups didn’t occur because soldiers wanted power: They were coups to eliminate elected politicians who were corrupt and only sought to benefit their own groups. Bloodshed doesn’t happen with every coup, but it can happen from using power and rights to harm others. The current uprising is not against the dictatorship or a corrupt government but is happening because a certain group, a minority, opposes the monarchy and wants to change the country from a constitutional monarchy into something else.

As for the prospect of violence, we need to ask the protesters to carefully consider the fact that, at the very least, democracy rests upon the principle of majority rule. Does what they’re protesting for really represent the majority? Does everyone really benefit from what they are doing? The monarchy reforms or regime change the protesters are demanding cannot possibly happen because there are many other people who want to keep the monarchy. Violence is avoidable as long as everyone respects the law and doesn’t violate it, and as long as there is no instigation or confrontation between the two sides.

A curtain lifted

Claudio Sopranzetti, anthropologist and author

The history of these movements has shown these kind of predictions are almost always wrong. An apparent victory can become a loss, and vice versa. Specifically talking about the use of state violence is a complicated business, more often decided on the spot than planned ahead.

Besides these short-term outcomes, I think that a new space has been opened for a discussion of an institution which has historically been protected by a curtain of respect and fear, and those openings are hard to close and ultimately will represent the most significant outcome of this protest.

‘Worst-case scenario’

Prachaya ‘Ice’ Nongnuch, Matichon TV politics reporter

This could end one of two ways – in accordance with the constitution under the Parliament, or the unconstitutional way, by a coup. We’re not yet in a political vacuum where unconstitutional measures are needed. It’s also difficult for a coup against Gen. Prayuth to happen, because we all know that the government and the army are strongly unified.

What’s more likely is he will tighten his grip on power through security laws — for example, announcing an emergency decree in Bangkok or, if the situation escalates further, imposing martial law. I’d say the chances are very slim Gen. Prayuth resigns anytime soon.

Could a massacre like Oct. 6, 1976, occur again? Compare past events to our current situation and you will find the answer. It’s very unlikely in this day and age because of [social media]. In the worst-case scenario, if violence does happen, the government might have to retreat.

We have lessons from the past, like the popular uprising of Oct. 14, 1973, when Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn had to step down, or the Black May 1992 event, when Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon had to resign for calm to return to Bangkok. But the 1976 massacre and 2010 military crackdown also happened because the government wouldn’t back down.

Force the hand of change

Narinya Mongkoleiam, online political commentator and influencer

The protesters will have to fight for a long time, a few years maybe, to get what they want if the government continues to engage in stall tactics.

It’s hard to get all three demands met. I don’t think changes can occur at all without this government being dissolved. It will be the first domino that begins the chain of events. Monarchy reforms will be the hardest because it’s controversial, even among the pro-democracy crowd, and causes conflict within the group. But this movement has already succeeded in breaking the taboo by mentioning and calling the monarchy out directly.

It seems like violence will have to occur for things to really change. No one wants blood on their hands, but it seems like the government does. There would be foreign intervention if violence did happen … with international sanctions put in place, hurting the economy. It would heavily pressure Prayuth to resign, for sure. The 1932 revolt was all but bloodless because the People’s Party went straight to the palace, and a group of military officers was on their side. We can’t do that.

The people will ultimately prevail

Benjamaporn ‘Ploy’ Nivas, 16, leader of the Bad Student movement

I honestly don’t know how this moment will end. We have been living with a flawed democracy not only for the six years of this regime, but for decades and decades, ever since my grandparents’ generation. What’s going on right now brings fresh hope for Thai society. Every citizen should have the freedom to vote for officials who create and implement rules that better the lives of citizens instead of forming their own groups of cronies to rake in the benefits.

If we don’t achieve our aims, if those wielding power don’t change and adapt to the people’s demands, there will always be an outcry from the public. Times change, and different players will always come in, but history repeats itself. No matter how long it takes – another 10, 20, 30 years – the people will prevail.