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Opinion

Thailand: no country for young people

Kingdom has long history of suppressing progressive youngsters, sometimes violently

| Thailand
Pro-democracy protesters at Bangkok's Victory Monument on Oct. 21: Thailand's generation divide has never been more obvious.   © Reuters

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

After a week of protests across Thailand, the heightened political awareness of its younger generation is apparent. Night after night, thousands of young people connected seamlessly on social media have rallied at key intersections in Bangkok and further afield, deploying rapidly even with public transport shut down.

High school and university students have proved themselves to be anything but the self-absorbed, selfie-loving snowflakes so many used to dismiss. While the early focus was on the government's resignation and constitutional reform, they finally shattered the long-held taboo on open discussion of the monarchy, articulating a 10-point plan to bring it back under the constitution.

As people see these idealistic young faces, a large proportion of them female, they should remember Thailand's long history of heavy-handedness with younger political elements. The most egregious incidents haunt the nation and remain raw. There were savage crackdowns at Thammasat University in 1973 and 1976. Young people were among the dead and maimed in 1992 and 2010 when troops again resorted to live fire. 

The young have paid dearly for standing up to Thailand's deeply embedded establishment, which has facilitated the crushing of peaceful dissent without consequences. Wisely, the students have so far only called for reasonable reform of the monarchy, not its abolition -- evidence of how tactically adept they have been handling the cynical and entitled old guard.

But students are by no means the only suppressed younger group. Young politicians attempting to make their way formally through parliamentary politics have been thwarted by the old elites, abetted by a compliant judiciary.

After the 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved and 111 of its members were suspended from politics for five years, including younger politicians. The Thaksin proxy cabinets that followed were filled with little known second-raters while rising political stars sat in the bleachers.

A similar tactic was used against the popular Future Forward party, led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41. Founded in 2018, the party pursued a critical reform agenda that set it apart from other parties, including demilitarization of politics, and reduction of the armed forces and defense budget -- serious threats to those placed in power by the military.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's Future Forward party pursued a critical reform agenda that posed a serious threat to those placed in power by the military.   © Reuters

Although genuine efforts were made in the mid-1970s and 1990s, Thailand's elites have never seriously invested in a credible electoral process, and do not trust any system that could possibly produce an adverse election outcome. When they failed to achieve their ends by fiat, they would always fall back on a military coup to reset the political equilibrium in their favor. Indeed, Thailand is the world's leading exponent of this process. It involves endlessly rewriting the constitution in whatever way is needed to enfeeble progressive upstart parties.

Future Forward had another key leader: Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, 41, a law professor at Thammasat University and member of the Nitirat group, which advocated amendment of the draconian law of lese-majeste that outlaws criticism of the monarchy. Ideologically, Future Forward offered a platform to usually repressed critics of the monarchy. It was hugely successful in the 2019 elections -- the third largest party with more than six million votes. Its core supporters were first-time voters and young urbanites.

The biting reforms Future Forward advocated sounded alarms among the old guard, who set about plotting its demise. The Constitutional Court ruled that the party violated financial rules when it accepted a large loan from Thanathorn. It was not ordered to repay the loan or fined, but disbanded and key members banned from election for ten years. Whatever the law might say, it is hard to see this as proportionate to a contestable transgression, particularly as the finances of so many other parties are opaque.

Many regarded this as judicial warfare, similar to the disbanding of numerous other parties over the years, and sackings of three prime ministers -- Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat in 2008, and Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. It was a case of no politics for young men and women, which continue to be dominated by old and connected politicians and generals.

Thailand's generation divide has never been more obvious, and it obstructs orderly political transition. The constant undermining of young politicians stifles democratic development. It denies the next generation experience in parliamentary processes and actual government. Ultimately, of course, today's young politicians will prevail as the old establishment simply dies off. But because they have been shut out and beaten down for so long, they will have to grapple with the challenges ahead without the benefit of vital experience.

The despotic behavior of the old, and their constant resort to extra-constitutional levers, blocks access to the political arena. This goes a long way to explaining the fervor we see today as young people finally find their voices.

The thousands on the streets today are fighting for the right to some say in their own futures. They have been more audacious than any before them in tackling the sensitive question of the monarchy, and questioning how it might be holding the country back. Indeed, far from binding the kingdom together, it might be on the verge of splitting it apart.

The young protesters started out hoping political parties, particularly opposition ones, would embrace their calls, but they have been let down. The largest, Pheu Thai, ignored them. Move Forward, the reinvention of Future Forward, balked at touching the monarchy despite its youth support.

For now, the old still control Thai politics, but the demands of the new generation are perfectly reasonable. These must be addressed through a formal political system that actually serves the interests of all the people.

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