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Thailand's silent majority remains undecided over monarchy reform

Demonstrations seems to have failed to energize white-collar workers

Royalists supporting Thailand's government, right, have taken to the streets to counter the student-led demonstrations. (Source photos by Reuters) 

BANGKOK -- As anti-establishment protests in Thailand continue, royalists supporting the government have also taken to the streets to counter the student-led demonstrations, creating familiar scenes of tension between opposing political groups.

The anti-government side, often wearing black T-shirts used to finance their movement, is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, changes to the constitution adopted under the former junta leader, and reforms to the monarchy.

Pro-government demonstrators, mainly older citizens and often identifiable by their yellow shirts, are voicing their support for the monarchy.

But one color seems to be missing from the crowds: white-collar workers.

The latest political strife is more of a generational confrontation than an ideological one. Thailand's massive street protests in recent years were linked to the saga of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. The Red Shirts, primarily poorer, rural voters from northern and north eastern Thailand who backed Thaksin, were pitted against the Yellow Shirts, mostly middle class and wealthy class urbanites who supported the military and the political establishment.

The biggest difference now is that, for the first time, the country's long-standing taboo on debating the monarchy has been broken.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in 2014 there were 10 million supporters of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and 10 million in the anti-Thaksin camp, with the remaining 40 million to 50 million Thais supporting neither side.    © Reuters

But the latest protests pack less punch than those in the past. This is not just because protesters have stopped short of occupying important facilities or becoming radical. The rallies are also attracting fewer people than in the past.

The largest of the anti-government rallies held in the past months have been attended by 30,000 to 50,000 people, compared to the 100,000 to 200,000 of many past street demonstrations.

There are several possible reasons for this difference. One is the vital role social media play in organizing today's rallies.

Many older citizens who apparently belonged to the pro-Thaksin camp took part in demonstrations up until the Oct. 14 march to Government House, which was announced long beforehand.

After the government's emergency decree early on Oct. 15 to crack down on street protests in Bangkok, protesters started using guerrilla-like tactics to avoid being blocked by police, keeping the locations and times of their scattered gatherings secret until the last moment. At that point, the ratio of university and high school students rose markedly.

"The majority of the protesters were young people or students, with barely any old faces who could be assumed to be red-shirt followers," wrote Veera Prateepchaikul, a Bangkok Post columnist.

Veera said the organizers' use of social media meant that only "loyal Twitter followers [were able] to respond to the call in time," excluding Red Shirts who belonged to the "outdated analog era."

Protest leaders have used the power of social media to spread messages quickly and widely, and hold simultaneous rallies in around 20 cities. People can now take part in protests without traveling to Bangkok. This is another factor behind smaller demonstrations in the capital.

But even more notable is a lukewarm attitude toward the current movement among white-collar workers here.

This is a remarkable change from 1992, when they played the leading role in protests demanding the resignation of Suchinda Kraprayoon, a former general installed by the army as prime minister despite his promise not to take the helm of the government.

In the 2014 protests that led up to the fall of Yingluck Shinawatra's government, white-collar Thais in Bangkok took part in large demonstrations after work or held their own mini-rallies during lunch.

The latest round of protests in Thailand seems to be different in many ways from the demonstrations last year in Hong Kong, where anti-government students have stressed solidarity among a broad range of citizens.

An estimated 2 million people, or more than a quarter of the city's population, took to the streets during the mass protests that forced the local government to withdraw a controversial extradition bill.

A senior executive at a Japanese company who worked Hong Kong last year and has recently been transferred to Thailand had expected to encounter a similar situation here.

"Everybody in my workplace in Hong Kong was talking about politics," this person said. "Many local employees joined demonstrations in the evening after work. I braced myself for more or less the same in Bangkok, but I was surprised to find absolutely nobody talking about the demonstrations."

To find out what silent middle-class urbanites in Bangkok think about the current situation, this correspondent asked some for their thoughts.

A 39-year-old man in the real estate business:

The anti-government protesters are demanding too many things. More people would support them if they were only calling for the resignation of the prime minister. I do not understand why they need to demand reform of the monarchy now. Young people do not have a real sense of how many contributions the monarchy made in the past. Middle-aged Thais like me have views close to those of older generations. The priority now should be the economy rather than politics. I have never taken part in a street demonstration. People have the right to hold political gatherings, but they should not cause trouble for others.

A 36-year-old woman in the service sector:

I am not opposed to reforming the monarchy, but I do not think it is possible. One of my 20-something colleagues is taking part in demonstrations. She has the freedom to do so, but I have warned her that her future would be affected if she gets embroiled in violence or a tactless social media post goes viral. My guess is that about 70% of people support the call for the prime minister's resignation while 30% are sympathetic to arguments for reforming the monarchy.

A 26-year-old woman working for a staffing agency:

I support the three demands made by the protesters. I myself do not take part in demonstrations because of safety concerns. I change my route home when protests cause traffic jams or stop train service. I discuss politics with my parents. I explain the students' arguments to them, but they respect the monarchy and never change their stance. I change the subject before it turns into an argument.

A 26-year-old female colleague:

Although I respect the monarchy, I still support all three demands of the protesters. I do not believe reform of the monarchy will happen. I do not join demonstrations because I live alone and have no one to rely on if I get injured. None of my friends has invited me to participate. My parents are Thaksin supporters and they used to take me to rallies. Now, I decide whether to go or not myself.

After Prayuth took power in the 2014 coup, he offered his own view about the country's political spectrum. He said there were 10 million Thaksin supporters and 10 million in the anti-Thaksin camp, with the remaining 40 million to 50 million Thais supporting neither side.

How do things stand today? A survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration in mid-October offered some insight.

Asked whether they had already made up their mind on whether they support the anti-government or the pro-government camp, 33% of the respondents said they had, while 36% said they were still thinking and 30% said they had no intention to decide. Watching demonstrations does not do much to help gauge the pulse of public opinion.

The main challenge confronting the nation's political leaders is how to listen to the voices of the silent majority in their efforts to build broad consensus on key issues. The only hope for the healing of the political rift in Thailand seems to lie the parliament's openness to weighing the establishment of special committee for dialogue.

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