In Thailand, the COVID-19 pandemic unites old factions in discontent – The Diplomat
As Thailand emerges in spurts from nearly a year and a half of pandemic paralysis into a “new normal,” traditional political divisions of geography and class have faded. The impact of COVID-19 in Thailand has exacerbated government problems and deepened underlying feelings of dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the military-dominated government and the monarchy.
Public discontent had risen since the 2014 coup that originally brought Prayut to power and the death of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, but the pandemic has made concerns about the country’s governance more existential. Once known for its bitter split between two political fronts, the populist red shirts and the nationalist yellow shirts, Thailand’s people are more united in their views of the ruling class than at almost any point in the past two decades.
The red-yellow shirt schism gradually emerged in the early 2000s, sparked by political outsider Thaksin Shinawatra’s landslide victory in 2001, in which he received over 40 percent of the vote. Thaksin’s popularity with rural communities in northern Thailand was enormous, but his party has faced numerous allegations of corruption and abuse. The Thaksin controversy led directly to the rise of the Yellow Shirts, a loose coalition of middle-class technocrats, ultra-royalists, high society elites and members of the military.
The yellow shirts organized huge street protests against Thaksin that led to the 2006 military coup that ousted him as prime minister. Angry at the removal of their democratically elected leader, Thaksin’s mostly rural and lower-class supporters formed the red shirts. Intellectuals and Thais who wanted democratic reforms later joined the group. From 2006, however, the red and yellow shirts engaged in conflicting and often violent political protests that eventually led to another military coup in 2014.
The demonstrations since 2020 have been unprecedented in size and the scope of protesters’ demands. Remarkably, the red and yellow shirts are no longer the most relevant civilian political groups. Instead, members of both sides have begun supporting a younger generation leading the protests, part of the broader pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance movement across Southeast Asia.
Unlike previous student movements, today’s Gen Z-led protests have broad support and are characterized by an “unlikely alliance” between former Red Shirt leaders and some of their Yellow Shirt counterparts. Older generations have joined the young, and many members of the once-dutiful royalist elite have sided with the working class in a unified call for the resignation of Prayut and his cabinet.
Red shirt veterans are more active and visible in the current protests as they have long opposed royal and military institutions; Notable Prayut critics today include former Red Shirt leaders Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan. A significant number of Yellow Shirts have also changed their positions, reflected in the apparent decline of active supporters of the monarchy. Prominent former royalists who have joined the protest movement include ex-Yellow Shirts Nititorn Lamlue and Tanat Thanakitamnuay.
Recent polls reflect the breadth of this new coalition: support for Prime Minister Prayut fell from 57 percent in 2018 to 19 percent in September 2021. This newfound solidarity among the opposition can be attributed to three key factors: the government’s inability to contain the spread of COVID-19, economic stagnation during the pandemic and the public’s increasingly negative perception of the monarchy.
While Prayut’s supporters once viewed his leadership as stabilizing, the pandemic has exposed cracks in his rule. In the first year of the pandemic, Thailand was considered an anomaly for its ability to contain the virus, but infections increased dramatically in 2021. Thailand has been criticized for its slow rollout of vaccinations, which until recently has lagged behind poorer countries in the region. like Laos and Cambodia. Of particular concern was the government’s decision to manufacture doses of AstraZeneca locally through Siam Bioscience, a King-owned company that had no experience developing vaccines. In the face of mounting deaths, even the Yellow Shirts, who once backed Prayut’s 2014 coup, turned against him in the summer and fall of 2021, leading to public calls for Prayut’s resignation and a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Former Prayuth supporter Tanat Thanakitamnuay credits COVID-19 with “providing more evidence and evidence” of the government’s “incompetence”.
Economic stagnation has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the government. Thailand was already weakening economically before 2020. Annual growth fell from 5.3 percent in 2006 to less than 3 percent in 2019, slower than many of its neighbors, and the country’s national debt hit $63 billion. The pandemic has compounded these losses. Tourism, a major source of income, has ground to a halt due to the virus, affecting millions of jobs. Thailand’s unemployment rate hit a 12-year high and GDP fell more than 6 percent, falling short of government promises to avoid the “middle-income trap.” The economic hardship has sparked unrest among working-class Thais and young protesters, united by anger at the military’s poor economic management, which they say has hampered Thailand’s future potential for greater prosperity.
The pandemic has helped to crumbling the loyalty Thais have traditionally felt to the monarchy. Critical public perceptions of the monarchy escalated in 2016 following the death of the revered King Bhumibol and the subsequent accession of his son King Vajiralongkorn. While underlying dissatisfaction with the monarchy began well before the pandemic, COVID-19 has reinforced what some protesters see as antiquated and authoritarian aspects of the institution. In response to the news that Vajiralongkorn had been touring Europe during the pandemic, Twitter users shared the hashtag #whydoweneedaking? over 1.2 million times in 24 hours.
Accordingly, the number of people arrested under lese-majesté laws has “risen significantly” in 2021, with 100 people, including eight children, charged in the last year alone. Loud criticism of the king is still rare, but that may reflect the cultural taboo and extreme legal ramifications of criticizing the monarchy rather than actual popular opinion. While Thai journalists and commentators themselves cannot report on the monarchy’s popularity, Australian-based journalist Sebastian Strangio claims that the king is “largely unpopular” in Thailand.
As opposition to the regime and criticism of the monarchy mounts across Thailand, uniting previously opposing factions, the United States government must be careful how protests could affect democracy in the country. According to Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, the dissent and increasing popular demands are likely to “build tensions toward confrontation and clash” as the military and palace are unlikely to be reformed, which will prompt a more aggressive military-backed response Government.
Although the current anti-government protests are the largest in years, the military’s monopoly on power and a willingness to restrict civil liberties suggest that the outcome of further clashes would likely be a further weakening of Thailand’s democracy. Another democratic backslide would strain the United States’ relationship with Thailand, especially given the Biden administration’s focus on expanding democracy and human rights.
This article was originally published in New Perspectives on Asia by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.