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In their lifetimes, young Thais have already witnessed one financial crisis, two coups, endless protests and sweeping constitutional change. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)
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Thailand's fearless youth stands up to the military and monarchy

The government struggles to reach a generation no longer cowed by authority

BANGKOK -- Just as dusk spread across Bangkok on a recent Sunday evening, the mood in a cavernous warehouse near a busy traffic intersection was electric. The crowd chanted anti-establishment slogans in response to the provocative hip-hop blasting out from the stage, as headliners Rap Against Dictatorship built up to their signature song "Prathet Ku Mee" -- "What My Country's Got."

The song, an angry denunciation of the Thai government, has become an anthem for young people frustrated with years of political and economic chaos. Its lyrics call the capital of Bangkok a "killing field" and declare the junta-controlled parliament a "playground for soldiers." Released in October 2018, the music video for the song was watched 17 million times in its first week online, and has now reached more than 77 million views.

Nutthapong "Liberate P" Srimuong, one of RAD's frontmen, still shakes his head with disbelief at the song's success. "We touched young Thais in a way we never knew," he told the Nikkei Asian Review after the concert. "If you see the online media, you can see their frustration. And we echo that frustration."

Prathet Ku Mee's success is totemic of a rising discontent among young Thais, who have come of age in an era of near-unending political crises. Those born in the 1990s have lived through the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, two coups, sweeping constitutional change -- and now a wave of authoritarianism and conservatism that has swelled since the military took power in 2014. Rather than stay quiet, young people in Thailand are starting to raise their voices, online and at events like RAD's.

"If you don't criticize openly, you are out of fashion now; it is cool for young Thais to be outraged, angry and frustrated at what is happening in the country," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank.

Concertgoers raise their hands, some in a three-fingered salute -- a sign barred by the military government as a symbol of resistance. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The government, headed by former coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has struggled to contain this growing discontent. Instead, it has turned to classic authoritarian tactics, such as trying to delegitimize a youth-focused political party and building new political apparatus for monitoring dissent. But while previous generations have been cowed by such moves, this time is different, said Kan. "After years of silence, the young generations have reached a threshold, a trigger point."

Rising rebellion

On a recent Friday evening, Chotiros Naksut left her office in Bangkok's Pathumwan business district wearing a T-shirt that read, in bold English lettering: "F--- Prayuth and if you like Prayuth f--- you too."

Such open provocation is not without risks. The junta that Prayuth led, and the elected government that followed, have used authoritarian tactics to stay in power. Political activities and public assembly were restricted. Critics were summoned to military compounds for "attitude adjustment" sessions. Social media was censored, and citizens leaving critical comments on social media platforms were hit with charges of sedition. Pro-democracy activists have been attacked in broad daylight. The perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, creating a sense of impunity.

Chotiros has lost friends because of her political views, and is on constant guard against a public backlash. "I was scared initially, and had to deal with critics who insulted me for being a woman and for my sexuality," she said, adjusting the bangs of her purple-tinted hair. "But not anymore. Harsh language conveys our frustration about where our country has ended up."

Thailand as a "land of smiles and happy people" is a "myth and propaganda" of the tourism ministry, says Chotiros Naksut, a 28-year-old writer in Bangkok. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Her own political awakening came before the junta took over. The 28-year-old said that as far back as high school she was infuriated by Thailand's retrograde gender politics. "I wanted to break the silence in our society that girls are supposed to remain quiet on many things -- sex, politics, religion."

Her rebellion comes in the form of erotic fiction, using sex as a way to explore social and cultural issues. Her debut collection, "Black Cherry," was published in Thailand last April, and she has built a substantial following online, with more than 21,000 followers on Facebook.

"We should be able to challenge the conservative culture and what the authorities say about Thailand -- that it is a land of smiles and happy people, which is a myth and propaganda of Thailand's tourism ministry," she said.

More and more young Thais are turning to provocation, despite the danger of backlash. "They are courting risks to openly criticize anything that comes in the way of their future," said Orapin Yingyongpathana, editor in chief of The Momentum, one of the country's leading Thai-language digital current affairs platforms. "They think Thailand is stagnating."

Economically, at least, it is. Thailand's gross domestic product growth, which has been relatively robust even through the past few years of political disruption, is stuttering. The economy limped to 2.5% growth in 2019. This year it could slump further, as the coronavirus outbreak hits tourism. From 2009 to 2019, household debt rose from 377,100 baht to 552,500 baht ($12,000 to $17,600), according to the central bank. Total household debt is now equivalent to nearly 80% of GDP.

At the same time, the country's educated urban youth are already struggling to find work. According to the Thailand Development Research Institute, a respected think tank, the unemployment rate for young Thais with diplomas and bachelor's degrees, who account for 7.3% and 9.5% of the youth workforce, respectively, was 4.7% and 17.2%. "I expect that the unemployment rate [for those with higher education] would go higher if the economic growth rate continues to slow down," said Yongyuth Chalamwong, research director for human resource policy at TDRI.

Reports of hiring freezes, falling production orders and a dip in consumer spending have put new graduates entering the workforce on edge.

Aomthip Kerdplanant, a final-year student at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University who has led protests against air pollution in the city, gave voice to the growing despair. "We joke that we were born during the financial crisis, and are now having to look for jobs when there is an economic crisis," said the 23-year-old. "We get stressed when we talk about this hopeless situation."

"We joke that we were born during the financial crisis, and are now having to look for jobs when there is an economic crisis"

Aomthip Kerdplanant, a final-year student at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University

Out of that hopelessness have come creative approaches to protest. In mid-January, nearly 14,000 people gathered in a park in the north of Bangkok for a 6 km "Run Against Dictatorship." Prathet Ku Mee blared out from speakers, and many runners gave the three-fingered salute that has become a sign of protest since the 2014 coup.

"Over the last six years we were ruled by fear, and the public had become afraid of conventional protests, so we thought of something creative like a run to attract those who were not afraid of being critical anymore," said Nutta Mahattana, one of the event's organizers. "We were overwhelmed by the response from young Thais who needed a new style to say they have had enough with the regime."

"I am here to protest against the politics of hypocrisy under Prayuth and his military backers," said a participant in their twenties who works in Bangkok's technology sector. "People here know the system of power has been fixed to favor one side and shut out our hopes."

Hip-hop group Rap Against Dictatorship's "Prathet Ku Mee," with its unbridled criticism of the government, rapidly became an anthem for Thailand's youth. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Behind these real-world events, a mass mobilization is happening online. Thailand is a highly connected country, with 57 million internet users and 51 million social media users, according to We Are Social, a global social media agency.

Thailand's anti-establishment wave has its own social media influencers, such as Khai Maew. A satirical cartoonist who works under a pseudonym, he uploads at least three cartoons a week to his Facebook page, which has more than half a million followers. His work often lampoons Prayuth, who is depicted with a Hitler-style toothbrush mustache.

"[I] draw to challenge suppression, not to conform to it," he said in an email interview. "My main issues are about rights, liberty, corruption and the patronage system."

The building sense of grievance is a concern for the Thai government, which has used judicial and constitutional mechanisms to cement its grip on power. But heavy-handed rule also appears to have cost the government its hold over the middle class.

"[This] is at the core of mass-mobilization movements and what gets people out," said James Buchanan, an analyst of Thai social movements at the City University of Hong Kong. "Over the past 10 years, Thailand's establishment has behaved so badly and exposed themselves so much that it has changed the middle-class youth's views to outrage."

Fraught future

The lightning rod for young Thai people's support -- and the government's backlash -- has been the Future Forward Party, which was founded in March 2018 and contested the election 12 months later. Led by the telegenic 41-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the party pitched hard to younger voters. It pushed for an amendment to the military-backed constitution, to break up the country's oligarchies, and to trim the size and power of the army. One policy that particularly resonated was an end to compulsory military service for Thai males from the age of 21.

The party also rewrote the political playbook. Rather than relying on a ground game of grassroots canvassers and patronage networks -- tactics that have historically delivered votes in Thai elections -- the FFP threw its resources into social media campaigns, targeting urban areas and university towns.

"We tried to maximize the power of online platforms, and many 'futuristas,' our online supporters, helped us carry this task by hashtagging and sharing our content," Pannika Wanich, a party spokesperson, said in an interview. "People in urban areas tend to lean less toward the politics-canvasser network and are more open-minded to new political parties."

The youth-oriented Future Forward Party is threatened with dissolution, and has been hit with 28 legal cases from allies of Thailand's ultraconservatives. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The military establishment, which had hoped to use the election to cement its position at the heart of Thai politics, was unworried by the FFP's approach.

Sources within Thai military intelligence told Nikkei that, at the time, they gave little stock to the political reach of FFP's online campaign. They had estimated the new party returning 10 to 20 seats at the polls "because they were not using the traditional voter canvasser networks, and we have always been accurate with our forecasts before," one intelligence official said. "The outcome was completely unexpected. We were proved wrong by the young voters who backed FFP," they conceded. "It also confirmed the impact of social media in Thai politics."

The FFP won 81 seats in the 500-seat parliament, finishing third and establishing the party as a genuine political force in its first-ever election.

Thanathorn attributes the shift to the formative years of Thailand's younger generation. They were born in the shadow of the 1997 "Tom Yum Kung" crisis -- named for the searing heat of the popular national dish -- which decimated the Thai economy. In the febrile years that followed, protest movements rose and fell, and they witnessed bloody street clashes between anti-government protesters and the army. Since then, they have seen the results of two elections overturned by the military.

"So if you are in your final year in university now, you begin to understand that there is something wrong with the country," Thanathorn told Nikkei. "More importantly, you also realize that what you learn in school or in the university doesn't match with the reality."

The FFP's success triggered a backlash by ultraconservatives, who have found ways to challenge the party's legitimacy. In November, Thanathorn lost his place in parliament after being found guilty of violating an election rule limiting candidates' shareholdings in media companies. Thanathorn said that he had sold his stake in V-Luck Media before campaigning began, but the court said there was no evidence of the transfer.

The party itself narrowly avoided being disbanded in January, after a court ruled that it had not, as had been alleged, tried to undermine the monarchy. In total, more than 25 legal cases have been leveled against the FFP by allies of the ultraconservatives. Its next test comes on Feb. 21, when the party faces the Constitutional Court over a case involving 191 million baht received from Thanathorn before the March elections -- and where, again, the party's dissolution hangs in the balance.

"If they dissolve us now, they are shutting the door for a peaceful democratic transition, and that is dangerous," Thanathorn said. "Thailand will not have political peace."

In 2009, Bangkok was thrown into turmoil as thousands of anti-government protesters demanded the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections.    © Getty Images

The security establishment has also turned to time-honored authoritarian tactics in the battle for the soul of Thailand's youth. The Internal Security Operations Command, a Cold War-era agency created to hunt down Communists, has returned to prominence under Prayuth. It has been exhorting young people to join patriotic mass organizations that uphold the monarchy and Buddhism as fundamental pillars of Thai identity.

"Every ISOC province has a duty to fulfill its target -- that is, to mobilize people for its training," said Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai political scientist and author of the upcoming book "Infiltrating the Society: The Thai Military's Internal Security Affairs." Much of the agency's budget is targeted towards running royalist-nationalist programs, she added. "They can design their program as they see fit, such as a one-day program for a small number of people of 100, or a big number of 3,000 for a few hours' talk."

The military establishment has created new avenues to keep tabs on citizens, going as far as setting up a Facebook page -- "ISOC007," jokingly referred to as the "James Bond" unit in some security circles -- to receive "security news" from its network of contacts among the public. "Ro.Dor.Cyber," a military-led surveillance arm, has tapped thousands of students to "monitor online activities that are unpatriotic," according to high-ranking military insider.

The government has established a "war room" at the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society to monitor what it calls "fake news," and has tried to portray online activity as a threat to national security.

"Social media is more powerful than the armed forces' weapons," warned Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the head of the army, in a speech last April.

'A new divide'

It seems unlikely that old tactics will solve new problems for Thailand's military government, as traditional vectors for control are breaking down.

"[Young people] are reimagining the kind of relationship they want to have with Thai politics, and with a new generation of leaders who can speak directly to young voters," said Penchan Phoborisut, a Thai communications scholar at the California State University, Fullerton.

In universities, young Thais are increasingly willing to challenge their elders. "The university cannot monopolize knowledge anymore, because the students come prepared and will challenge you with their facts," said Wasana Wongsurawat, a Thai historian at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Even among the alumni, the old social protocols are being challenged, because younger graduates are quick to jump in and criticize the senior alumni in online forums."

Online, young people are even willing to mock the monarchy, long regarded as taboo. Twitter users have openly questioned the closing of roads and resorts for the royal household, despite the threat of jail terms under Thailand's harsh lese-majeste laws.

In a cultural shift, more creatives are willing to take aim at the government, such as satirical cartoonist Khai Maew. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The government made a rare acknowledgment of the shifting cultural tide in late 2019, when it released its security plan. "The new generations have not had a bond to the monarchy, since they lack understanding and correct awareness of the importance of the royal institution as the national soul of the country," said the document, which was prepared by the National Security Council.

One insider told Nikkei that the military establishment, having leveraged social and political divisions -- conservative against reformist, poor voters against the ultrarich -- to secure an enduring influence over Thailand's democracy, now faces an almost insurmountable challenge.

"They have been confronted by a new divide in Thai politics -- a generational divide," the source said. "The political boundary is no more the city versus the village, or the capital versus the province, but the boundary is social media," the source added. "And the younger generation is winning on this front."

Chotiros, the writer, expects this generational divide to become more entrenched if the ruling class turns a deaf ear to the rising rage of Thailand's youth. "We want honest answers to questions about why the county is stagnating," she said. "Their way of doing things has seen the society collapse over the past 10 years, and our generation will not sit silently."

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