Protests are by no means an aberration in Thailand, where the political landscape has long been shaped by coups, countercoups and constitutional overhauls. Few eyebrows were raised therefore when student-led demonstrations, organised against the dissolution of the pro-democracy Future Forward Party, began in February 2020.
The subsequent longevity of the movement however has taken many by surprise, not least the Thai government. Its extension from Bangkok into typically conservative provinces such as Phuket and Phatthalung separates it from past protests. Mass arrests and the declaration of a ‘severe’ state of emergency have so far failed to halt the movements’ growth. As it has grown so too have its objectives, with unprecedented demands for the fundamental reform or even abolition of the monarchy now key rallying points.
Though emboldened, the meaningful change sought by protestors is unlikely to be forthcoming. If not for absentee King Maha Vajiralongkorn, support for the monarchy remains strong in some quarters. Most importantly, the armed forces stand firm behind the institution. The military establishment may be willing to make superficial concessions, including the disposal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. But, following the appointment of palace loyalist General Narongphan Jitkaewthae as Commander in Chief in October, it is extremely unlikely to challenge the monarchy or accept substantial steps toward democratisation even as public pressure mounts.
The current moment marks a turning point for the protests. Any abuses perpetrated by state security forces may further radicalise the movement, as happened in Hong Kong, although the revocation of the state of emergency on 22 October indicates the government’s desire to avoid an escalation. Simmering political discontent at seemingly unshakeable military and monarchical control, coupled with the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in an already deeply unequal society may lay the foundations of future problems. Even if the current round of protests is quelled, there is likely more unrest in Thailand’s future.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx