Bangkok and the main Thai urban centers have been affected for more than a year by highly participatory anti-government protests aimed at encouraging a process of reform of the political and institutional system.
The aim of the demonstrators (initially students who have been joined by other members of civil society from various sectors over the months) is to encourage a process of democratisation in the country, interrupted after the military coup in 2014 and the confirmation in power of the military-backed government led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2019. The short-term goals of the protesters are therefore the resignation of the current prime minister, calling of elections for the renewal of the House of Representatives (anticipating those scheduled for 2023), a new Constitution, a substantial limitation of the power of the military and a modification of the role of the monarchy.
The originality of the current protest movement derives from the strong critical stance towards the sovereign Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), a change with potentially significant implications, given the symbolic importance of the monarchy in Thailand.
Among the possible future scenarios, the most probable appears to be the continuation of the protests during 2021, but with gatherings that are likely to be less attended and frequent than those recorded in 2020. This could derive from the application of sentences for the crime of lese-majesty (due to criticism of the monarchy) with the aim of discouraging and limiting the protesters’ actions. However, at the same time, given the general discontent of the population, the government will continue to present constitutional amendments to partially meet the activists’ demands. In any case, a decrease in the influence of the army in the Thai political and institutional system seems highly unlikely, as well as a questioning of monarchical power. This instability will in any case negatively affect the performance of the economy, already in crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A second plausible scenario concerns the possibility that Prayuth will have to face a motion of no-confidence from the oppositions in Parliament, which in any case can easily be overcome due as he enjoys the support of the military. However, given the continuation of the protests in the coming months, the hypothesis that the faction critical of Prayuth will prevail in the army cannot be completely ruled out, a situation that could force the Prime Minister to resign in favour of another member of the government coalition. Although this eventuality could guarantee the general’s exit from the scene (one of the main targets of the protests), it would give new vigour to the initiative of the demonstrators who, encouraged by the result, would organise new protests.
The worst, but less likely, scenario concerns an escalation of protests accompanied by a violent response from the army. In the case of a significant instability with consequent difficulties between Prayuth and the sovereign, the more conservative wing of the army could favour a new coup d’état to protect the monarchy and the replacing of the prime minister. However, this initiative would lead to further protests and general instability.
The demonstrations being held in Thai cities in recent weeks represent the third phase of a pro-democracy protest movement that began in February 2020 but was abruptly halted in March of the same year due to an increase in Covid-19 cases. The second phase took place following the easing of restrictive measures in June 2020 and lasted until December, when Thailand experienced a resurgence of infection cases resulting in new restrictions. The current third phase began in February 2021.
Thailand’s 2020-2021 protests connect to long-term dynamics of the country’s recent history. Initially, the protest organisers were groups opposing the coup carried out by the military junta in 2014, that resulted in the subsequent installation of the government led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The military’s objective, after a decade characterised by two coups (2006 and 2014), instability and numerous protest uprisings (organised by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts), was to facilitate an orderly transition from the reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) to that of his son Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne in 2016 as Rama X.
The current institutional model, codified by the 2017 Constitution written by the same military junta, guarantees an influential role for the military apparatus, which effectively controls the judiciary, directly appoints the 250 members of the Senate, and is allied with a civilian party that protects military interests, the Palang Pracharath, which heads the majority coalition in the House of Representatives. After the March 2019 parliamentary elections, the government was again entrusted to the group led by the party associated with the military, although it is not the leading group by number of seats in the lower house of the National Assembly.
Prayut’s confirmation as prime minister led to widespread discontent in Thai civil society, which widened after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in February 2020. A ruling by the Constitutional Court in fact certified a violation of the law on elections, because the political party allegedly received a loan from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which was considered an illegal donation. The FFP (a progressive party, opposed to the military junta, its MPs founded the Move Forward party after its dissolution) had obtained a positive result in the elections, thanks to a large number of young Thai voters.
The Constitutional Court’s decision on FFP therefore generated the first wave of protests, organised mainly on university campuses. After the interruption in March 2020, the demonstrations resumed with greater vigour from June 2020, a phase that saw a gradual adherence of followers of the Red Shirts movement to the students’ claims and the organisation of counter-manifestations by supporters of the monarchy and the military junta.
Protesters have adopted very similar tactics to those seen in Hong Kong during the 2019 and 2020 anti-government protests, moving from clearly planned marches, especially in Bangkok, to spontaneous demonstrations. There is no centralised leadership, as was the case with previous protests staged by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, while social media plays a key role in planning the rallies. The army and the government have control over traditional media, so anti-government oriented young people use other channels, such as TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. The authorities have attempted to control these media but have met with resistance from social media companies.
Hundreds of activists have been arrested since the demonstrations began, some for the offence of lese-majesty. The abolition of Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code, which prohibits any kind of remark on the monarchy, is one of the demands of the ongoing protests. There has been no punishment for disrespecting the monarch for nearly three years, while since November 2020 more than 60 people have been charged with violating Article 112, including Thanathorn Juangoongruangkit, leader of the FFP. Anchan Preelert, a pro-democracy activist, was sentenced to 43 years in prison for the crime of lese-majesty in reference to some online activities.
To date, the main demands of activists are essentially three: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the calling of new elections for the renewal of the House of Representatives before 2023; a new Constitution with a formal revision and a substantial limitation of the power of the military, as well as the end of their repression against pro-democracy activists; a change of role of the monarchy and its subordination to constitutional control.
Thailand has already experienced similar situations in the past fifteen years, as widespread protest uprisings resulted in the collapse of two governments in 2006 and 2014 coups. However, the current broad public discontent is not the reflection of a clash between factions and interest groups vying for control of the country, as was the case between the so-called Red Shirts (mainly representing rural workers, students, left-wing activists and businessmen critical of the military) and the Yellow Shirts (i.e. pro-monarchists, ultranationalists and members of the urban middle class). On the contrary, it is the expression of a desire for change, potentially “revolutionary”, of the Thai power system because, in addition to questioning the role of the army, for the first time is also considering the role of the monarchy. In recent months, the monarchy, from being an untouchable institution and a symbol of stability, has become the object of public debate and, albeit by a minority of civil society, of derision and rejection.
The public image of the current sovereign has contributed to fuel public criticism, since Rama X appears to have moved away from the semblance of moral integrity shown by his father, exhibiting, according to a part of Thai civil society, an opulent lifestyle considered disrespectful and distant from the interests of the population, especially during the difficult situation created by the health crisis.
However, the Thai monarchy is currently aligned with the army and an unspoken agreement between the parties for the management of power remains, given that the military junta endorsed in 2018 a resolution of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which transferred the entire amount of its portfolio – royal assets worth more than $40 billion held for more than 80 years on behalf of the monarchy and the nation – directly under the control of King Vajiralongkorn. In addition to vast real estate holdings in central Bangkok, the CPB owns significant stakes in the kingdom’s largest industrial company, Siam Cement Group, and in one of its largest lenders, Siam Commercial Bank. In October 2020, the king also took direct control of two crucial army units located in Bangkok, after he established a special security division known as the “King’s Guards 904” in 2018, with the explicit goal of protecting the monarchy and serving as the king’s personal security force.
Activists are aware of the unfeasibility of abolishing the monarchy (given also the significant support of the Thai population towards the institution), but aspire to a series of reforms summarised in 10 points. These include the introduction of legal limits to the operations of the monarch, the activation of controls on his finances and activities abroad, a cut in the budget available to the king in line with the economic situation of the country, the separation of Rama X’s personal wealth from the Crown’s assets and a responsibility of the monarch towards elected representatives, thus ensuring the primacy of the Thai Constitution over monarchical prerogatives.
Public discontent, particularly against the monarchy’s wealth, comes in the context of a precarious socio-economic situation, the most serious since the 1997 financial crisis. Despite the fact that Thailand has effectively contained Covid-19 cases (as at late March 2021, the total number of cases was 28,600, with 92 deaths), the pandemic has caused widespread social unrest, reflected in the millions of unemployed and the damage to an economy heavily dependent on tourism and exports. This situation contributes to feeding the discontent of a part of the population whose anti-government sentiments were already influenced by pre-existing dynamics such as, for example, the lack of democratic representation. Real GDP growth in 2020 contracted by 7.1% due to domestic and global restrictions. Subsequently, with partial reopening, actual GDP grew in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 by 6.2% and 1.3%, respectively, but the outlook remains uncertain. GDP may amount to 4% in 2021 due to a recovery in domestic demand, while Thai exports are expected to rebound once international trade provides similar levels of trade to the pre-pandemic period. Tourism recovery is expected to be slow for most of 2021, depending largely on the vaccine distribution campaign and the recovery of global travel.
Thailand’s vaccine plan was launched on 1 March 2021 at a slower pace than in other Southeast Asian countries. Authorities approved the use of AstraZeneca (in partnership with local Siam Bioscience) and Sinovac Biotech (the latter from China) vaccines, initially for at-risk groups (health system workers, the elderly, and people with serious illnesses). The goal of the authorities is to vaccinate 31 million Thais by the end of 2021, or about 45% of the 66 million population. At present, the element of greatest concern for the Thai authorities is the instability of Myanmar, which could lead to an increase in migratory flows towards Thailand, as during the violent protests of 1988, entailing an increase in the risks associated with the spread of Covid-19 infections as well as repercussions on the economic system.
Finally, international tensions, in particular those between the United States and China (both of which, despite the historic relationship with Washington, are important trading partners of Bangkok), could have a negative impact on the country’s growth rates, thus contributing to fuelling the conditions for internal tensions and instability.
Very likely scenario
The main political consequence of the demonstrations has been a strong pressure on the government, which, in fact, is unable to accept all of the demonstrators’ demands, now that the role of the army and the monarchy is questioned. The establishment, represented by the military, the monarchy, the judiciary, the Buddhist clergy and the oligarchs, has also shown no sign of welcoming demands for a pluralist and representative political system. Therefore, the government’s efforts to curb the protest movement could hinder internal reconciliation and instead result in instability and risks to the country’s security environment.
However, the security forces might make limited use of violence, not only because the protests are peacefull (sporadic incidents relating to the use of improvised explosives have been reported), but also for fear of possible international repercussions. With an unpopular military-backed government and against a backdrop of growing inequalities, a weak economy, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the civil society questioning the monarchy, a violent repression against the protesters could result in a strong reaction from the population. In particular, if the military were to manage the situation forcibly, the parliament could divide into pro and anti-army factions, and military control of the institutional system might weaken.
In light of the above, the government and the army will most likely try to get closer to some of the protesters’ demands to prevent the current majority from weakening ahead of the 2023 election; this will make the debate on constitutional reforms a central topic in the next few months. Once the amendments to the constitution have been approved, they will be submitted to a referendum. Measures will most likely include amending some of the criteria to appoint Senate representative, as the military plans to maintain strong ties with elected civilians and avoid new coups.
In this context, the sovereign could try to change his public image by showing himself more attentive to the population’s problems, in such a way as to increase his credibility within those civil society groups that are very critical of the royal house. However, by emphasising the political establishment’s readiness to listen to social demands and exposing anti-monarchy grievances (not accepted by opposition parties and by the majority of the Thai public opinion), the sovereign could also try to discredit the protest movement. Despite increased criticism of the monarchy, the latter is still deeply rooted in the Thai political system, identified as a pillar of stability and historical continuity. The protesters’ persistent demands over the sovereign’s prerogatives risks prompting sectors of Thai society to move away from protest groups and making activists themselves vulnerable to severe legal consequences (the latter may dissuade them from holding new protests).
The military’s goal is to secure broad support in parliament by joining forces with civilian parties, avoiding any action that might seem radical and excessively adverse to the demonstrators and boosting economic recovery.
The most likely scenario for the next few months is that the protest will continue, including on a daily basis, although we can assume a decline in rallies compared to 2020. However, it seems unlikely that they will turn into the paralysing unrest seen in the years preceding the military coup in 2014 (i.e. the Yellow and Red Shirts). The internal debate concerning the monarchy could instead continue, without however being too critical of the sovereign’s role in Thai society.
A less likely scenario is that the government of Prime Minister Prayuth will face a no-confidence motion from the opposition in parliament, as already happened in February 2020 and February 2021, not only due to the protests, but also because of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccination campaign.
Furthermore, a prolonged stalemate between the protesters and authorities could undermine economic growth and pose security risks in Bangkok. If the protest containment measures do not take effect in the coming months, the military could withdraw its support for Prayuth (his forced resignaton would deprive the protesters of one of their main targets) and support an alternative leader from the ruling coalition. The army is internally divided into factions, some of them opposing Prime Minister Prayuth; in June 2020, members of Palang Pracharath managed to have the prime minister’s economic team resign, thus prompting a government reshuffle.
However, such a scenario depends on the prime minister’s power base: Prayuth has many supporters in the army, and his resignation would risk encouraging protesters and prompting the military to continue to support him.
Given the possible tensions between the Prayuth-led government and the monarchy, the worst-case scenario – though the least likely to occur – is a new military coup aimed at overthrowing the incument prime minister. Such an initiative would be the work of the more conservative wing of the army, which would act to protect the monarchy (questioned by the demonstrators and not effectively defended by the government). However, this scenario would lead to an increase in protests and resulting violent repression by local authorities, with a higher number of civilian casualties.
It cannot be ruled out that, in the event of a considerable increase in internal instability, armed insurgency groups active in Thailand’s southern Muslim-majority areas will interrupt dialogue with the central authorities and resume their terrorist operations in the breakaway provinces and the other urban centres of the country.