A Chance for Change in the New Thailand

Now that the king is gone, can Thailand’s opposition come together to challenge the ruling military junta?


For over two years, the streets of Bangkok — which had grown accustomed to frequent and massive demonstrations — have been uncharacteristically quiet. Thailand’s raucous last phase of democracy ended in May 2014, when the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched a coup that deposed the government and installed a military junta. Since then, the democratic opposition has remained internally divided and mostly passive on the national stage. But with the adoption of the junta’s constitution this August — and even more significantly, after the death of the widely revered King Bhumibol several weeks ago — a new political landscape has been taking shape. The junta has consolidated its power and gained an electoral mandate, but lost the popular legitimacy it derived from a beloved and revered king. For an opposition that has been all but inert, the new political environment offers an opportunity to form a united front, challenge the junta, and restore democratic rule — if they can grasp it.

In the wake of the coup, the military government — led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha — presented itself as a ship that would guide Thailand to safety in rocky waters. The country had endured months of political gridlock between supporters and opponents of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, founded by populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The raging protests, punctuated by violence, had created fear across the capital. The coup, Prayuth’s deputy foreign minister said, was “a revolution to install stability.” Since then, Thailand has indeed grown quieter as the military detained and intimidated journalists, banned any assembly of over five people, and issued a stream of endless, often ham-fisted propaganda. Its leaders have regularly promised elections that would return the country to civilian rule — but as expected, these have been continuously postponed. Like previous military rulers, Prayuth has leaned heavily on the monarchy, the last symbol of national unity in a deeply polarized society. The king’s support for the coup was a powerful legitimizing force. Exploiting this stamp of approval to the fullest, the military has positioned itself as the ultimate defender of the royal institution and has made harsh and broad use of lèse-majesté laws to silence dissent. 

Having suppressed any immediate opposition, the junta quickly moved to institutionalize its control over Thai politics for the long haul, engineering a referendum last August that enshrined a new, more favorable constitution. According to the new charter, Thailand’s senate — which holds veto power over the lower house — will be appointed entirely by the junta. For the first time, the prime minister will no longer have to be drawn from the parliament, clearing the way for a member of the military to lead the country. Prayuth has even floated the idea that he himself could continue on as prime minister after the junta relinquishes power. The new electoral system, which is strictly proportional, will make it harder for any parties to win strong majorities, leading to weak coalitions and reinforcing the power of the military as the arbiter of the country’s political order.

The junta campaigned vigorously for the referendum, sending as many as 350,000 pro-draft canvassers into the country’s towns and villages. At the same time, the regime denied opponents the chance to campaign on a level playing field, punishing criticism of the proposed constitution by imprisonment, criminalizing assembly, detaining opposition leaders, and intimidating the press. Even as pro-constitution canvassers and media flooded Thailand’s villages, shop owners who displayed banners in opposition were forced to take them down. Across the country, the junta carefully stacked the deck while parading the referendum as a show of popular participation.

The government’s efforts to push through the new constitution were aided by a deeply divided opposition. The country’s two dominant political parties, Pheu Thai and the Democratic Party, expressed their opposition to the charter but refused to actively campaign against it for fear of arrest or harassment. The “Red Shirts,” who support former prime minister Thaksin and are Thailand’s largest civil society mobilizing force, also refrained from campaigning against the constitution to avoid reprisals. Instead, it attempted to monitor the referendum to prevent fraud, only for the monitoring to be banned. Labor unions and rural organizers urged their followers to boycott the ballot to avoid legitimizing the junta. In the end, it was the student groups that campaigned most vigorously against the new constitution, despite facing harassment and arbitrary detention. But while these groups — representing the country’s democratic opposition — were all opposed to the constitution, they failed to create a united front. This led to a predictable victory for the junta, with 61 percent of voters in favor and a turnout of 55 percent, the lowest of any ballot since 1983.

Perhaps the most glaring divide within the opposition is between its two most active elements: The student groups, who are at the forefront of the current fight against the junta, and the Red Shirts, who are officially known as the United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship due to their opposition to the previous military coup in 2006. The student groups, most notably the New Democracy Movement (NDM), like to stage symbolic, high-visibility actions (primarily in Bangkok), using Facebook to spread awareness across the country. The Red Shirts, on the other hand, are influential among farmers and laborers from the country’s rural North and Northeast. Their strong presence in the traditional media and in local community networks enabled them to bring millions into the streets prior to the coup. In today’s repressive environment, the students have thrived by using dispersive tactics, such as flash protests, while the Red Shirts have abandoned the streets.

Given their different tactics and constituencies, it would seem that the student groups and the Red Shirts would form a natural united front against the junta. But the Red Shirts are far from an apolitical, pro-democracy movement. They are closely aligned with rural populations and the Pheu Thai party of former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who were both ousted by previous coups in 2006 and 2014 respectively. For years, the Red Shirts have faced off in the streets with the Yellow Shirts, a coalition of royalists, nationalists, and members of the political and business establishment. The Red Shirts’ alliance with Pheu Thai and the Shinawatras make it a polarizing force, and the students fear that any alliance with them would prevent them from being able to form wider coalitions. They believe that their movement is more effective when operating independently, and that the Red Shirt leadership would merely attempt to absorb their following.

Finally, until now, there has been little agreement among student groups, Red Shirts, labor organizers and other democratic forces on when and how to mobilize against the junta. Many saw the adoption of a new constitution as unavoidable and decided to wait it out. Most critical of all, the impending death of king Bhumibol had kept opposition groups indecisive, as they knew it would destabilize the junta’s power base if they only waited. In coup after coup — Thailand has experienced 19 since 1933 — the military has used royal support as a legitimizing force. But in contrast to his father, who had been revered and respected by almost all sections of Thai society, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is a divisive figure who enjoys far less legitimacy. Already facing growing challenges to its authority, the monarchy — and thus the military junta — is likely to lose a great deal of its popularity during the royal succession. Seeing the link between the monarch’s legitimacy and its own, the junta has launched massive propaganda campaigns to “educate the youth” on the monarchy, building statues of past kings, running television ads, and organizing seminars in schools. It has also worked to rehabilitate the reputation of the prince. So while the referendum provided the military junta with an electoral mandate and great institutional power, the death of the king was a serious blow.

In sum, the waiting game is now over. In a few months at most — following a period of mourning for the beloved king — the dust will settle and a new political landscape will come into being. In this new environment, the democratic opposition will be able to organize and mobilize far more effectively for a return to democratic rule. It will be able to capitalize on the unpopularity of the new king, mobilizing populations who were unwilling to challenge the junta and its royal mandate. It will also be able to unite various groups around common strategies and campaigns, now that the uncertainties of the referendum and the king’s health have passed. These campaigns might target the new centers of power, or use elections as mobilizing opportunities, or focus on uniting both major parties against the junta. 

But of course, this will depend on the ability of civil society groups to bridge their divisions and unite behind a single banner: returning Thailand to democratic governance. Indeed, unity is one of the most critical components of a successful democratic movement. Given the military’s steady consolidation of power and its relentless propaganda, only a robust, unified front will be able to place Thailand back on track towards democracy.

The next elections, planned for November 2017, provide the perfect opportunity for the opposition to challenge the junta. The question is whether democracy activists will seize on this opportunity.

In the photo, Thais sing the Royal anthem in honor of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 22.

Photo credit: PAULA BRONSTEIN/Getty Images

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