BANGKOK -- The ground reverberated with the shouting of a flood of people in the streets. As I made my way through the thicket of bodies, memories of past chaos at this same place came rushing back.
Anti-establishment protesters gathered on the evening of Oct. 15 at Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok. Their numbers continued to grow as the sun set, reaching 10,000, according to police estimates.
"Out with [Prime Minister] Prayuth!" they chanted, while holding up the three-fingered salute -- a gesture borrowed from "The Hunger Games" films, which portray resistance against a dictatorship -- that has become a symbol of the protests.
Lined with stores and luxury hotels, the area is the heart of the Thai economy, and has been likened to Ginza in Tokyo or New York's Fifth Avenue. It is a symbolic site for protests, having been occupied for long periods by anti-government demonstrators in 2010 and 2014.
This time, the unrest was sparked in February, when the Constitutional Court, under the influence of the military-led Prayuth government, dissolved the anti-military opposition Future Forward Party. The protests died down as the coronavirus pandemic spread to Thailand, but flared again in July. On October 14, after gathering in Bangkok's Old Town, demonstrators marched to the Government House to stage a sit-in. Early the next morning, the government arrested protest leaders and declared an emergency that banned gatherings.
Protesters ignored the ban, moving to the heart of the city. The police were virtually silent the entire day. But on October 16, they hardened their stance. When protesters called for another rally, the police forcibly removed 2,000 people using tear gas and water canon that sprayed what appeared to be a chemical irritant. Protesters scattered, using social media to gather in dispersed locations in what became a game of cat-and-mouse with the police.
Thailand has experienced large anti-government protests before. In 2008, protesters occupied the Government House and Suvarnabhumi Airport to demand that the governments of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat quit. In 2010, they remained in the Ratchaprasong district for a month and a half, calling for Abhisit Vejjajiva's cabinet to step down. Four years later, they occupied seven major intersections, including Ratchaprasong, to denounce Yingluck Shinawatra's government. This correspondent was present to report on the 2010 and 2014 protests.
This time too, protesters are demanding the government step down. They are also calling for amendments to the constitution's undemocratic elements. But there are two more important differences about these protests.
The first is that their demands are directed at the royal family as well as the government. Under the constitution, the king is inviolable, and criticism of the royal family is taboo in Thai society. But the protesters have turned a critical eye on King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of each year abroad. They are calling for the royal family to stay out of politics, as well as for cuts to the royal budget and an end to the lese majeste law that forbids criticism of the monarchy.
The government had appeared to tolerate protests until they encountered the royal motorcade on Oct. 14. The government condemns the demonstrators for disrupting traffic and insulting the royal family by holding up the three-fingered salute as the queen rode by.
Another important difference is in the nature of the confrontation. In the past, political fights between populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's supporters and their opponents were the main sources of conflict. But this time the protesters are not political partisans, but young people, many of them university and high school students. Those who oppose reforms to the monarchy tend to be middle-aged and older, creating a sense of intergenerational conflict.
Students have led protest movements before, dating back to demands for democracy in the 1970s. "The economy was bad then because of the oil crisis, but it was still growing," said Chaturon Chaisang, then a leader of leftist students at Chiang Mai University who went on to serve as deputy prime minister in the Thaksin government. "Now, with growth slowing and the coronavirus pandemic having a big negative impact, there is a growing feeling of suffocation." Chaturon described the conflict as one between the older generations, who enjoyed economic growth and approval of the existing structure of Thai society, and youth, who see no prospects of a brighter future.
Prayuth has on several occasions accused people behind the scenes of funding and manipulating the protests. But a military source expressed frustration at such thinking.
"Crowdfunding lets them raise small amounts of money in an instant," this person said. "The prime minister doesn't understand this reality."
There are no prominent central figures in the protests and no firm organization. Several groups work loosely together and make decisions online. As a result, they have been able to continue organizing rallies and mobilizing demonstrators even after leaders were arrested.
But this strength of these digitally native protests has a major weakness as its flip side. There seems to be no exit strategy for what happens if shouting in the streets does not produce political change.
That is where previous large-scale anti-government protests were decidedly different.
The 2008 protests by anti-Thaksin groups toppled the government after the military plotted a realigned ruling coalition behind the scenes. The 2014 protests prompted the first military coup in eight years. Protesters instigated the armed forces' intervention by occupying key buildings and compounds for long periods to paralyze political, economic, and everyday life, thus achieving their goals.
What about the 2010 pro-Thaksin demonstrations that ended in failure? The Abhisit government, responding to calls for the dissolution of the lower house and a general election, offered a compromise of an election after six months. The protesters, some of whom were heavily armed, initially accepted this deal before turning it down in the end. They declared the demonstrations would continue, and about 90 people died in the subsequent crackdown.
What kind of victory did the protesters envision beyond fighting to the bitter end? Veera Musikapong, former deputy interior minister and protest leader at the time, once told this correspondent: "If the chaos continued like that, we assumed the military would stage a coup to settle the situation," he said. Thaskin, who was funding the protests, "was counting on it."
In short, inviting a coup to hit the reset button on the political scene has been the exit strategy of previous protests.
Looking further back in Thailand's history, the military has at times violently suppressed protests against its political involvement, resulting in a large number of casualties. Both in the "October 14 Event" of 1973 and "Black May" in 1992, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervened and resolved the situation by considering the protesters' demands.
This time, both the military and the king have become the objects of criticism. If the situation escalates, there is a danger that no reset button will be available.
Prayuth's government also likely does not have an exit strategy. Even if it were inclined to compromise, it has no clear negotiating partner.
What is clear is that a bloody outcome must be avoided at all costs. A self coup, in which the military overthrows the military-led government and abolishes the legislature, would only make Thailand's political troubles more deeply rooted, to say nothing of an armed crackdown on student protesters.