Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the military government’s poor economic performance, its cooperation with the monarchy, and the dictatorial oppressiveness gave Thai youth the feeling that the system is rigged beyond repair. The government failed at socially reproducing Thai lives as livable.
While the government deployed the lockdown mandate to suppress the first wave of the protests in February this year, the second wave from mid-July is still ongoing. The hashtag “let it end in our generation” (#ให้มันจบที่รุ่นเรา)reached 1.11 million tweets on July 20 after the inaugural second-wave protest ended. It forcefully emerged as one of the protests’ slogans thereafter.
The initial demands of the second-wave protests included the dissolution of parliament, ending intimidation of the people, and drafting a new constitution. These demands were aimed at democratizing and demilitarizing Thailand. The protestors subsequently adopted the Thammasat 10-point demand for monarchical reforms after its declaration in early August.
Multiple youth groups and veteran activist networks alternate to lead diffused, flashmob-style protests of 20,000-100,000 without centralized leadership. The protestors come together not because of common origin but due to their common condition and shared perspective. A summary survey of the groups involved in the protests reveal their heterogeneity, in both demographic and ideological terms: the high-school “Bad Students” group, provincial youths, vocational students, college students, the LGBTQ+ “Seri Thoey” group, artists, the dance team “Ratsa-dance” group, k-pop fans, young monks, human rights advocates, occupational groups, and various trade unions and labor coalitions. Because of the Thai state’s violent oppression of the left, trade unions and labor coalitions have remained a minority in the current protests. Most prominent youth leaders share the urban college-educated background.
The protests occur several times a week. Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram are the main communicative channels. Though Thailand’s capital city Bangkok remains the center of protests, at least 49 provinces (out of 77) have witnessed youth protests associated with the Free People Group. Examples of high-profile provincial youth leaders organizing in Bangkok include Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, from the Isaan human rights defender “Dao Din” group, and Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, from the “Eastern Youth Leadership” Group.
Among the most inspiring provincial protests came from Patani, a predominantly Muslim southern province where locals speak vernacular Malay. This is among the most oppressed provinces in the country. Pro-democracy Patani youths assembled under the “Persatuan Pemuda Patani” (‘Youth Association of Patani’) group to join the nationwide protest in front of the historical Kerisek Mosque on August 2. One of the participants commented that he joined this protest because it is only within a democratic system – rather than the existing structure of centralized and militarized authoritarianism –that Patani people could engage with Thai politics on equal terms.
So far, the government has merely entertained the possibility of drafting a more democratic constitution but have consistently ignored other demands. There is no real sign of backing up from both the barracks and the palace. No deaths have yet occurred, but the government has so far responded to the protests with increasing violence and different forms of micro-repression. These include the deployment of the riot police, mass arrests, and the use of teargas grenades and high-pressure water cannon jets laced with purple dye and teargas chemical. In late November, the polices began charging the protesters with the lèse-majesté law after they have refrained from using it per the king’s request. In contrast, the pro-government and royalist counter-protestors enjoy both government’s protection and the king’s overt encouragement.
At the international level, the Thai protests have forged informal online solidarity “Milk Tea Alliance” with democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and may extend to India, Belarus, and Chile. Statements supporting Uyghur and Tibetan self-determination appeared in the protests. The hashtag “if Laos politics was good” (#ຖ້າການເມືອງລາວດີ) began trending in mid-October following the Thai protests. Analysts have discussed the possibility of an ASEAN spring if Thai protests triggered a ripple effect on other ongoing Southeast Asian struggles against dictatorship and neoliberalism in the Philippines and Indonesia. Many Thai immigrant communities across the globe, i.e., in Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin, Boston, Los Angeles, have also organized flash-mobs in solidarity with the protests back home.
The Real Face of Sakdina Today
Jit Phumisak, revered as the Thai “Che Guevara,” proposes in his unfinished The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today (1957) that we ought to analyze sakdina as a social system consisting of three spheres: the political, the economic, and the socio-cultural. Phumisak wrote this exposition when the Thai military and royalists began to win power back from the pro-democracy Khana Ratsadon. Such a brief interregnum – a situation that mirrors what’s happening in Thailand now – enabled Phumisak to launch a trenchant critique of sakdina. He did not live long enough to witness the triumph of the monarchy-military alliance, which succeeded in building a rightist hegemony based on royalist nationalism from the 1990s onwards. This will be discussed in some detail below.
To gain a fuller picture of sakdina that Phumisak did not sufficiently examine, this essay suggests adding the fourth sphere into this system: the ideological. It develops this final sphere through an engagement with Thai intellectual historian Thongchai Winichakul’s notion of hyper-royalism.
The Real Face shares overlapping intellectual and political concerns with other Marxist critiques of Thai feudalism around the 1950s, particularly with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).2Jeamteerasakul, Somsak, 1991, “The Communist Movement in Thailand,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Monash University, 32-4. What makes The Real Face stands out is its investigation of Thai feudalism as a totality based on rigorous historical research, compared to other programmatic or historically unsubstantiated accounts. This strand of critique sequentially disappeared as the CPT lost its appeal among left-leaning students following the 1976 Thammasat massacre. Thai leftists rarely continue Phumisak’s investigation precisely because of the fearful atmosphere created by the monarchy-military triumph, which, in turn, reinforced the de-radicalization of the Thai left.3Kitirianglarp, Kengkij, 2014, “Khwammai lae thana khong Jit Phumisak: Rao cha chotcham khao yangrai” [The Meaning and Status of Jit Phumisak: How Should We Remember Him?], in Jit Phumisak: Khwamsongcham lae khon runmai [Jit Phumisak: Memory and New Generation], ed. Suthachai Yimprasert, Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation, 118-26.
In the current protests, radical student groups from pro-establishment Chulalongkorn University, where Phumisak studied and was harassed by conservatives, have occasionally invoked his anti-royalist activism, revolutionary poems, and marching songs. Though The Real Face is a household read among left-leaning university students, rarely do the protestors pick up Phumisak’s critique of feudalism and link this farsighted critique to the current struggles. This essay aims to modestly fill this gap between theory and practice and set this conversation in motion.