Thailand’s 2013 protests in comparison

How is this round of anti-government protests in Thailand similar to or different from previous ones?

 

Pre-coup PAD 2006

PAD 2008

UDD 2010

Anti-govt. 2013

Key Groups

NGOs, labor unions, urban middle class, royalists, Democrats, academics, student activists, media, Buddhist groups, ASTV, senators, doctors/nurses

ASTV, Democrats, some NGOs and unions, royalists, nationalists, urban middle class, Buddhist groups, media, senators, doctors/nurses

PPP/Thaksin supporters, NGOs and civic groups, lower middle class, urban/rural poor

Democrats, student activists, former PAD, NGOs, unions, royalists, urban middle class, amnesty opponents, senators, doctors/nurses

Length

Late 2005 – Sep 2006

May – Dec 2008

March – May 2010

October 2013 – now

Trigger

Sales of Shincorp. to Temasek

Attempt to amend constitution

Abhisit govt.

Amnesty bill

Demands

Get rid of Thaksin

Save the monarchy

Article 7

Get rid of Thaksin

Save the monarchy

Sovereignty

House dissolution

Election

Thaksin (implicitly)

No amnesty/Thaksin

Article 7

Military

Save the monarchy

Deaths

2

8

99

4

Peak crowds

200,000+

30,000+

120,000+[1]

180,000+

Outcome

Election (annulled)

Military coup

Govt. change

Election

???

Media

Manager/ ASTV

Naewna

Thai Post

Manager/ ASTV

Naewna

Thai Post

Social media

Thaksin phone-ins

Asia Update

Community radios

Social media

Manager/ASTV

Blue Sky

13 Siam Thai

Naewna

Thai Post

Social media


*Not inclusive of all groups. For the purpose of this article, selected key groups are noted here.

Thailand seems to have been in “perpetual” crisis since 2005, with large street protests paralyzing the country’s capital every two years. The many protests seem to all look alike: they all claim the government is illegitimate and democracy is broken. While they may don different colors of shirts, they all believe in the utility of street protests as a main tool of dissent.

The table above provides a comparative examination of some of the key characteristics across 4 major episodes of street protest in Thailand, beginning with the anti-Thaksin protests in 2005/2006 to today’s unrest in 2013. I seek to identify some important similarities and differences across these large-scale protest events through a brief analysis of the pattern, strategy and discourse of mobilization. While it is clear the current round of protest is part of a continuum of political conflict that emerged since the era of the Thaksin government, there are also some notable features that set today’s unrest apart from its predecessors.

In broad terms, the current conflict is most similar to the pre-coup, anti-Thaksin protest. Both rounds of protests were mobilized by eclectic networks of civic groups and pro-monarchy and conservative forces, supported largely by the urban middle class. Although NGOs were more numerous in the 2005-2006 round, the main grievances from civil society were similar: they were against mega projects and Free Trade Agreements and felt that the protection of community and labor rights continued to be neglected.

For all of the protests led or supported by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) (in 2005, 2008, 2011, 2013), strong elements of royalism and conservatism played a critical role in providing both the mass and shaping the discourse of mobilization. “Saving the nation/monarchy” (กู้ชาติ) has worked well to both provide the focal point for uniting the various groups and eliciting support from the masses. However, such a monarchy-centered strategy is most effective when the “threats” are apparent and significant. The pre-coup and 2013 rounds of protests were able to turn out hundreds of thousands of supporters because there was a strong perception that Thaksin and his “clans” could be in power for the foreseeable future (perhaps, forever). On the contrary, the 2008 and 2011 mobilisations of the PAD garnered much less support from the public due partly to the weakened position of the Thaksin-aligned forces.

The “star-branching” strategy (ยุทธศาสตร์ดาวกระจาย) was used in the PAD 2008, the UDD 2010 and the 2013 anti-government protests. The main idea is that a core would be established as the center of protest command and “organized” groups of protesters would be sent out to occupy key designated areas. Because such a strategy often requires illegal acts, such as trespassing or use of firearms, it requires a certain amount of “mass” to make it work. The choice of where to occupy could be both strategic and symbolic: the Yellow Shirts tended to choose key government agencies to disrupt the day-to-day business of governing and to solicit some support from the bureaucrats. The Red Shirts, on the other hand, targeted business districts and areas of entertainment for the “rich” — high-end shopping malls in the center of Bangkok.

The problem with needing the mass to make the star-branching strategy work is that the leaders can’t really control the crowds and there is a greater chance for violence. In December 2008, when the PAD leaders lost control of some of the key groups, they began marching towards Don Muang and Suvannabhumi airports, which eventually led to their occupation.[2] In May 2010, when the UDD leaders announced a ceasefire, some protesters refused to go home (or couldn’t, for a number of reasons). Such an offensive strategy, combined with unmanaged crowds, makes it easier for violence to escalate, as evidenced by the recent deaths and injuries in clashes among protesters.

Media play a critical role in any popular mobilization that requires significant coordination. In all 4 rounds of major protests, the media helped to ignite and fuel movements of people across the country. What is different about the current unrest is rather than needing the media to help mobilize supporters, the anti-government forces’ aggressive attention-seeking behavior has alienated the media (especially public outlets). Their decision to threaten all public TV channels to coerce them to air their grievances were largely ignored and condemned by most media. Social media had to fill some of the void left by the growing disengaged public media outlets.

Another key defining feature of the 2013 anti-government protests is the issue of the amnesty. The passage of the amnesty bill in parliament helped to propel the entrance of new groups of opponents into the mix of the anti-government forces. Some of these new groups were not definitively “yellow-leaning” but they all saw the bill to be unjust and inexcusable. The “Anti-Amnesty Bill” group on Facebook, with 150,000 likes, ceased its activity once the amnesty proposals were dropped. Although some of its members continued to press on with the protests, the main mobilizing issue was the amnesty and not “get rid of the Thaksin regime.”

They differed from the conservative groups who were both upset at the possibility of Thaksin’s return, jail-free, and the government undermining the sanctity of the court. These latter groups, such as followers of Suthep Thaugsuban, which rapidly grew from a mere 20,000 in March this year to more than 550,000, and the People’s Movement against the Thaksin Regime Group, showed streaks of royalism and conservatism and are more likely to be the “old blood” that had supported previous rounds of Yellow Shirt mobilization. Their mobilization discourse in 2013 centers on the Shinawatra dynasty and their “danger” to the nation as opposed to any specific policy issue.

This round of conflict has also seen more empowering use of creative defiance by the protest supporters. No longer were protesters only using the “hand-clapping” method to show support for their leaders. Instead “whistle-blowing” has become a hallmark of the protest. The use of whistle blowing began during the anti-amnesty demonstrations in the business district of Silom. Protesters see themselves as “whistle blowers” – someone who exposes the misconduct or illegal activity inside the government. Whistle blowing also allows protesters to organize “flash mobs” on their own, which becomes particularly helpful for smaller scale protests in the provinces. Whistle blowing, unlike hand clapping, empowers the demonstrators to act on their own.

An explicit articulation of an authoritarian-style government, ironically dubbed “the People’s Committee for Political Reforms towards Democracy with the King as the Head of State,” (คณะกรรมการประชาชนเพื่อการเปลี่ยนแปลงประเทศไทยให้เป็นประชาธิปไตยที่สมบูรณ์อันมีพระมหากษัตริย์เป็นประมุข) is also a unique marker of the 2013 protests. While the call for “Article 7” — a royally appointed prime minister — had been around since 2006, this royal decree was sidelined largely by Suthep, who saw Article 7 as a means toward greater political reform, not just an end to itself. Perhaps this was a response to some criticism towards earlier rounds of smaller-scale anti-government protests, such as Pitak Siam, that they lacked a roadmap of political reforms. Even when Chamlong Srimuang began to talk about “partially appointed legislature” in the 2008 PAD mobilization, the idea remained half-baked and not fully supported by all the top PAD leaders.

This time around, Suthep sought to solidify his reform proposals, which included the following key points: 1) appointed national assembly from different profession; 2) fully appointed upper house; 3) no career politicians involved; 4) “good people” in power; and 5) new election when all branches of government and bureaucracy are “cleaned” of Thaksin’s influence. Essentially this is really no different from the “Council of Democratic Reform” (คณะปฏิรูปการปกครอง ในระบอบประชาธิปไตย อันมีพระมหากษัตริย์ทรงเป็นประมุข), which overthrew Thaksin in 2006. But instead of being led by the military, the current proposal is the “people’s version” – led by the people, for the people. While the core ideas are nearly identical to what the Yellow Shirts had proposed throughout their mobilization, the fact that they were communicated in a more coherent platform (by a politician, no less) suggests their need to be taken seriously. If CDR’s dismal performance and the PAD’s failed Vote No campaign are any indication, Suthep must take note of past failures before plunging further into the reform abyss.


[1] Figure from Nick Nostitz.

[2] Based on my own interview with top PAD leaders and key organizers.