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Opinion

Thailand's political convulsions are far from spontaneous

The bold youth breakout is rooted in political dissidence earlier this century

| Thailand
The three-finger salute inspired by The Hunger Games films has been adopted by young Thai protesters, but was first seen after the coup in 2014 when heavily armed troops occupied pedestrian walkways under the BTS SkyTrain running along Sukhumvit Road. (Photo by Nick Nostitz)

Nick Nostitz is a German journalist who chronicled Thailand's Red-Yellow political divide.

The humid night air was filled with chants deeply insulting to King Maha Vajiralongkorn. It was Oct. 15, 2020, and the Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok was heaving with over 10,000 mostly young protesters. As I watched from Germany, I was swept back to Sept. 19, 2010. Thailand's political turmoil is not new at all, but a continuation of earlier unrest barely reported by most media.

On that distant September day, the leadership of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD, the largest group in the anti-establishment Red Shirt movement, was in utter disarray. Half were in prison, and most of the rest had fled into exile. But Sombat Boongamanong, an independent Red Shirt leader, announced he would return to Ratchaprasong to commemorate the protesters killed in the brutal military crackdown that ended on May 19 with over 90 dead and 1,800 injured.

Over 10,000 Red Shirts answered Sombat's call. They completely overwhelmed the not unsympathetic police and Sombat himself. He was allowed to mount a police truck with a speaker system, and tried to move the crowd to Wat Pathum Wanaram, a large nearby temple.

The protesters refused. "Gu ma eng," they yelled back -- "I came by myself." Then everything changed. A whisper from one corner spread across the crowd, louder and louder. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the present king, was being accused of ordering the killing of Red Shirts. Offensive cartoons and graffiti were scribbled everywhere.

Leaderless Red Shirt protests continued for 10 weeks, switching every two weeks between Ratchaprasong and Democracy Monument. Each time, there were the same anti-monarchy chants and graffiti that had to be hurriedly cleaned up or painted over. In early December, a new UDD council was formed under Tida Thawornset, its former chief strategist. She feared deeply for the safety of the protesters, and visited the movement's grassroots organizations around the country, urging them to desist from anti-monarchism.

There were always many Red Shirt groups independent of the UDD, including the progressive 24th of June group, and revolutionary Daeng Siam, or Red Siam. They and community radio stations carried on campaigning against the monarchy, hopeful that the 2011 election of Yingluck Shinawatra would be liberalizing. Yingluck was the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister the military ousted in September 2006 -- and the main symbol of the Red Shirt movement.

Most Thaksin supporters in 2006 were staunch royalists who loved the old king. But that changed in the years that followed as Thailand polarized, and the conflict with ultraroyalist Yellow Shirts deepened. The love of monarchy drilled into every Thai from birth was being worn away by street violence and brutal crackdowns, coups, questionable court decisions, and the constant ousting by the old order of elected governments backed by Thaksin.

Until the 2014 coup, the monarchy, society and politics continued to be widely debated -- on countless stages, in seminars, at underground theater and music performances, and through alternative media outlets. There was little official reaction, but intelligence was being gathered all the time.

One of the earliest stages critical of the monarchy was the Voice of the Sanam Luang People, which popped up around the end of 2006. It produced one of the first big lese-majeste cases in the Red-Yellow conflict: Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, or Da Torpedo, who spent eight years in prison.

Fast forward to July this year, when Arnon Nampa, 36, set matters in motion. He is correctly described as a human rights lawyer, but his background is as a member of the Red Shirt legal team, and as a monarchy-critical Red Shirt activist. The month after Arnon called for reform of the monarchy, students at another rally read out a ten-point agenda detailing what should be done. This was not, as many news organizations reported, a new departure, but the resurfacing of something that began more than a decade earlier.

Why did all this go underground? The grim answer is that, following the 2014 coup staged by then army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, most outspoken activists ended up in prison, in exile or dead.

Chucheep Chivasut, or Uncle Sanam Luang, the organizer of the VSLP stage, disappeared in 2019 and is presumed dead. Surachai Danwattananusorn, co-founder of Daeng Siam, was presumed murdered in exile in Laos in 2018. Wuthipong Kachathamakul, or Go Tee, the brashest community radio activist, was abducted and is thought to have been murdered in Laos.

Arnon Nampa, the human rights lawyer who raised again the issue of reforming the monarchy in July, has a long connection to the Red Shirt movement. In June 2013, he recited a poem at Royal Plaza during a Red Shirt event commemorating the overthrow of absolute monarchy in Siam in 1932. (Photo by Nick Nostitz)

Some were not silenced. The Fai Yen band survived exile in Laos, and won asylum in France. Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, leader of the 24th of June group, was imprisoned and released but has recently been re-arrested. Historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul fled into exile in France. It was Somsak, who in 2010 issued a seven-point reform agenda for the monarchy, and it was from a life-size photo of him that some Thammasat University graduates recently chose symbolically to receive their degrees - not the king.

With a dramatic, fast-moving story, it is unreasonable to expect journalists to act as historians, but the easy narrative that what we are seeing is a spontaneous youthful rebellion ignores recent history. The young protesters call for an end to feudalism -- just as the Red Shirts did. This is partly caused by resentment of the curbing of their freedoms, but there is continuity -- this is a conflict that has now carried on into the next generation.

Although changing perceptions of the monarchy are not covered by the local media, and are too much background detail for most foreign media, plenty has been bubbling.

The back street in which I lived for 15 years before being forced to leave Thailand in 2016 for safety reasons -- my own and my family's -- was pretty typical of the intractable Red-Yellow divide. The monarchy issue was openly debated in the community. My son's friends are now adolescents, and -- just like all the other young people out protesting now -- grew up in that atmosphere.

It is fair to say that the present wave of protests was sparked by the Constitutional Court's dissolution in February of the youth-supported Future Forward Party. But one should also not forget that FFP drew significant votes from the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party shortly before the 2019 elections -- a Thaksin-backed essentially Red Shirt party. Even the three-finger salute inspired by The Hunger Games films that virtually every article on the recent protest highlights is not actually new. It was adopted by Red Shirt protesters a few days after the 2014 coup.

As one ties together these bitter historical threads, the question that has to be asked is whether Thailand can for once learn from its history. The country has reached a critical juncture, and reform of the monarchy is one of the three main demands of the protesters -- and one unlikely to be rescinded.

The royalist establishment views any criticism as an unbearable violation of the sanctity of the monarchy and equates calls for reform with attempts to overthrow it. The royalists have begun to mobilize street support as they wait for the protests to peak before they make their moves and the authorities unleash a legal avalanche upon the protest leaders -- or worse.

There is a sad tradition in Thailand: bloodshed precedes negotiation and compromise. The latter is often short-lived and probably better defined as submission. The ingredients for confrontation are all in place. The question is whether Thailand can this time short circuit the vicious cycle of political violence and oppression, and move toward the kind of society that has been awakening in recent decades.

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