A loud convoy of luxury cars cruised through Bangkok’s richest neighborhood Sunday calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign, as Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters are boosted by old political foes who have switched sides.
Thailand’s government is contending with the dual crisis of a raging pandemic and political protests.
In defiance of an emergency order banning crowds, thousands of young protesters angry at the government’s sluggish vaccine rollout — just 6% of Thais have been fully vaccinated — clashed Saturday with police who fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets at them.
Sunday, former royalist hardliner Tanat Thanakitamnuay, led a “car mob” rally through Bangkok’s Thong Lor district, home to the city’s rich. In the past, residents of this neighborhood were reliable political allies of Prayuth’s conservative establishment.
Prayuth is a former army chief, who seized power in 2014 with the support of Bangkok’s elite — including Tanat, a 29-year-old whose father founded the upmarket Noble Development property empire.
His Sunday protest was called “Salim Change of Heart,” using the Thai political slang “Salim” for those who refuse to take sides in public, but privately back the establishment.
“Power corrupts and Prayuth has absolute power. His government has really failed across the board, especially during this pandemic,” said Tanat.
His change of heart is a big one. In 2014 he was a young, pugnacious leader of the months-long royalist protests, which paralyzed the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra and resulted in Prayuth’s coup.
Seven years on, the general is now prime minister and Thailand’s constitution has been re-written to allow the army to remain in power.
The pro-democracy movement wants Prayuth out and demands a new constitution to excise the army from politics for good — as well as curb the monarchy’s powers.
Tanat hopes his conversion can show that the hard rivalries of the past can soften. Dissatisfaction with the government has grown due to the pandemic, which has killed more than 5,000 people, and an economy which has slumped into its worst recession in a generation.
Sunday Tanat greeted former rivals from the “Red Shirts” — the rural democracy movement allied to the Shinawatra political dynasty.
“I made a mistake, and it has cost the people the right to a democracy. I want to make that right,” he said.
Experts say the anger of the Bangkok middle and upper classes, once believers in the stability narrative promised by Prayuth, is new and could spell trouble for the prime minister.
Much of the resentment among the urban elite is driven by fear of a pandemic and a lack of vaccines beyond the Chinese-made Sinovac — which the government procured early but is widely mistrusted in Thailand.
“For the first time the upper class, who thought they were at the top of the society, now can’t even find hospital beds or good quality vaccines for themselves,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a law scholar of Chulalongkorn University told VOA.
“So now they realize they’ve been living in this bubble for far too long that doesn’t protect them unless they’re at the very top of the social hierarchy.”
Prayuth still has his supporters. The strongest are arch royalists who see him and the army as a buffer between the angry pro-democracy camp and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who sits at the top of Thai power.
“What you’re seeing on the streets only represents 20% of the population,” said Warisanun Sribawontanakit who runs a Facebook fan page for Prayuth which has 244,000 followers.
“The majority of Thais are still united behind the monarchy and support Prayuth,” she said. “The way out for this country is to make sure that these 80% are taken care of, vaccinated, their beloved monarchy is left untouched, and the mob movement destroyed. Then we will go back to where we were.”
But a year after they emerged, the protests continue. They are now pulling in a cross-section of “Gen Z” youth, older rural Red Shirts and remorseful former fans of Prayuth.
In a country whose politics often produces unexpected outcomes, analysts say it is hard to read what is more likely to come next. Possibilities include a coup to take out the protesters, another election to challenge Prayuth, or a long, bitter stalemate.
“Who’s winning, who’s losing? It depends on the battle. If we’re talking about the cultural revolution — the revolution of the mindset — the pro-democracy protesters are winning,” says Voranai Vanijaka, a prominent political commentator.
“If we’re talking about the battle for the government … the battle for the election that may come next year, then Prayuth’s regime still has the advantage because they hold power over every single facet of government.”