On Monday, the Thai parliament will open a special session called after protests swelling since August moved Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to declare a weeklong state of emergency in the Bangkok area.
Police say they are prepared to handle flare-ups during the session from protesters demanding Prayuth’s resignation and reform of the monarchy. Prayuth has described the special session as a step toward finding a “middle-of-the-road path.”
Unlike past anti-government protests in Thailand that saw two political interests battling each other to assume power, the current movement is led by school and college students pushing for systemic changes. Their movement has evolved with a group of loosely aligned leaders who organize online.
One of the leaders is Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree, whose father drives for Grab, southeast Asia’s Uber, and whose mother died in 2014. Tattep became interested in politics when pro-establishment protesters mounted a massive street campaign in 2013-14 to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a sister of the self-exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.
Tattep, 23, went on to major in political science at Thailand’s top-ranked Chulalongkorn University, where he gave up all-night video gaming sessions in favor of political, human rights and LGBTQ activism.
In December 2019, Tattep kissed his boyfriend, Panumas “James” Singprom, at parliament as they campaigned for gay marriage rights, a rare public display of same-sex affection that went viral in Thailand.
Tattep built on that moment when he joined ongoing pop-up protests reflecting the anti-government sentiment that had been growing since the government, along with the military, had tightened its grip on power and its alignment with King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The king had an official coronation in May 2019, almost three years after the death of the beloved previous king, his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Free Youth Movement
Today, Tattep leads the Free Youth Movement, which drew thousands to a protest July 18, and he has participated in several demonstrations since. The group has become a driving force behind the growing protests, which attracted tens of thousands of people this month. Tattep’s role is helping “collaborate and get the word out.”
Tattep told VOA Thai that he was glad the current protest movement “doesn’t need one particular leader. Anyone in the public can step up to take leadership. It’s fast and we can mobilize within 30 minutes. The ability to quickly fan out helps add pressure to the government.”
The Free Youth Movement pushed protesters to continue after the government attempted to ban demonstrations on October 15, when Prayuth declared a state of emergency.
“In this current movement, they gathered at many locations at the same time,” Tattep told VOA Thai on Monday. “The turnouts were big everywhere. That means the number of people who agree with us is growing. People can choose a convenient location to participate.”
On Wednesday, a day after Prayuth’s Cabinet announced the special session of parliament would begin on Monday, Prayuth said, “The only way to find a fair solution for the problem — for the people who have taken to the streets and for the tens of millions of people who haven’t, is through a dialogue, to work together through the parliamentary system.”
'We have to be patient'
“I know that this route may take time and may not be satisfyingly fast enough. But this route will not cost damage to the country,” Prayuth added during the televised announcement. “We have to be patient and bring out maturity in everyone to work on this. We have to be brave about taking a middle-of-the-road path.”
Tattep believes negotiations are unnecessary “because our demands are supremely clear. Prayuth must step down. A new constitution must be drafted. The monarchy needs to be reformed. It’s so clear that the government or the parliament can implement it without any further talks. We are not going to compromise. We will not retreat. We will not lower the ceiling.” A movement catchphrase is "push the ceiling," referring to the demand to reform the monarchy.
Further fueling the protests is the implosion of Thailand’s tourist-dependent economy. With global travel severely restricted by the coronavirus pandemic, analysts are predicting the economy could shrink this year, worse than during the 1997 Asian financial crisis when the Thai baht lost half its value. And, many students who are unable to attend classes because of COVID-19 restrictions want tuition discounts.
“The parliamentary session may lead to a new constitution, but if Prayuth is still in power and the monarchy isn’t committed to reforms, it won’t be enough to end the movement,” Tattep told VOA Thai.
The protesters are pressuring the government for the departure of Prayuth, a former general; a new constitution that will move the balance of power from the military and the elite to the people; and new elections.
King lives abroad
Many, like Tattep, want to rein in King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The king lives in Germany with access to a personal fortune estimated at $30 billion to $40 billion, making him the world’s richest royal.
Thailand’s harsh lèse majesté law, which carries the threat of up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the crown, has been used successfully by authorities to stifle dissent for decades. The protesters now defy it by speaking out against the king’s government.
“If you don’t reform the monarchy, the mob will continue, and the pressure remains on,” Tattep said. “Don’t even think about playing games with the people. ... It’s like water building up strongly – if the government continues to act like they are a shut levee, I can’t guarantee the levee will not explode.”
Although Prayuth has said he is looking for a middle-of-the-road path, Tattep told VOA Thai, “My view is that the movement will not end easily. It will go on for a long time.”