Source: Event posters, Facebook, Resistant Citizen (พลเมืองโต้กลับ)
Thailand just witnessed the most important anti-government rally since the May 2014 coup. This rare and well-coordinated opposition activity could be a game changer for the growing dissent among the Thai public.
On Valentine’s Day, the newly formed Resistant Citizen Group (พลเมืองโต้กลับ) launched a campaign, “My Beloved (Stolen) Election,” to call for a return to the ballot box. The event was well advertised in advance, with promotional videos, posters, Instagram and other social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter being tactfully employed. Banners were also seen in Chiang Mai and elsewhere. Parody, comedy and pop culture were weaved through the group’s main pro-election message, “My Beloved Election,” which in Thai was written as “Leuk tung tee rak” where “rak,” which means “love” is seen crossed off and wittily replaced by another word that has a similar sound, “lak” which means “stolen.” An even more ambiguous parody in the poster is the ballot that has been changed to a condom pack with a picture of the Democracy Monument, calling for a variety of interpretations. In another parody, it is a love poem to the men in uniform that describes the longing for the “lost” voices and rights. This style of civil disobedience is reminiscent of the Red Sunday Group, which frequently organized flash mobs calling for greater political rights between 2011 and 2014.
Some 300 supporters reportedly showed up at the rally in front of the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre – a normally very busy area in the heart of the capital. In the past, this area used to hold events and campaigns that supported an election, a political process in which the current military government does not seem to want it to happen ‘too soon.’ In anticipation of this event, security measures were tight with army trucks lined up outside of some of the major universities and at least two police units and several others in civilian clothing at the rally. After all, this was the most open opposition to the junta since initial anti-coup protests immediately following the putsch in May last year. The rally was eventually broken up by the security forces and 4 main organizers were arrested and later released on bail.
There are 3 reasons for why the V-Day resistance could mark an important turning point for opposition forces against the current military government.
First, this open, deliberate and direct challenge to the government defies and delegitimizes the government’s logic of coercion. Coercion – an act of influencing someone’s behaviour by force – requires the target audience (coercees) to perceive that they are being coerced. Often, those exercising coercion set out reasons for why a particular behaviour is desired and what the consequences are for non-compliance. Up to now, the junta has used a combination of coercion and moral suasion to “direct” and shape citizens’ behaviour.
Indeed, the very legitimacy of the current government depends on its ability to use coercion effectively and to monopolize its use. State-society relations under General Prayuth leadership is marked by an obsession over getting all “Thais” to collectively behave in a certain way, as evidenced by his Principle of 12 Values campaign. Thais are to be patriotic, loyal, grateful, respectful of authority, disciplined, etc. Along with the list of expected behaviour is also a list of “forbidden behaviour,” which includes a mundane listing of prohibitions characteristic of a dictatorial regime like a ban on political protest, for example. Threats and intimidation tactics have been frequently and openly exercised to create a climate of fear, but to also re-establish the social order to ensure Thai citizens “know” whose order to obey.
The push back by the Resistant Citizen has shown that the government’s logic of coercion may be failing. While the Prayuth Administration has generally succeeded in monopolizing the means of coercion, it has not used it so effectively. The V-Day resistance has exposed an important flaw in the government’s coercion tactic: incentives for compliance. Why should we comply, a citizen may ask? He/she may be well-aware of the risks for non-compliance but what about rewards for compliance? Social order? Prosperity? Democracy? The rewards are neither clear nor shared.
Source: Resistant Citizen Facebook
The mission statement of the Resistant Citizen strongly indicates that the current regime of coercion is not working. The way the group describes themselves is quite telling:
“In a climate of fear that is seeping through everywhere with a purpose of establishing a long-term authoritarian rule by the coup makers and their allies…In such environment, we, comprising of students, teachers, activists, relatives of those who have lost their lives due to political persecution, and those who love freedom and democracy, all agree that the first thing we must do is to destroy such climate of fear created by the coup government.”
While many Thais recognize that the junta’s grand plan of creating a morally united and acquiescent Thailand is a pipe dream, they comply or self-censor because the punishment for non-compliance is too costly (and ignorance is blissful). But the acts of defiance by Resistant Citizen has potentially reduced the “costs” of resistance for individual dissent through public demonstration of collective dissent.
Furthermore, the fact that the main drivers behind the V-Day resistance are known activists, and some would be considered by the authorities as “repeat offenders” signifies the military’s weakening coercive regime. Siriwit Serithiwat, one of the main organizers, had been detained twice previously and even signed an MOU with the military that he would not further engage in political activities. Yet he did. Anon Nampha, the Resistant Citizen’s leader and a human rights lawyer, told the authorities who detained him that if they were to be released, it would have to be unconditional. Both of these examples show that not only was the threat of reprisal not working, but the opposition leaders perceived their own position of having some leverage vis-à-vis the government.
Lastly, the V-Day resistance drew on support from existing opposition organizations, which demonstrated the strengthening of opposition forces. Unlike previous small acts of defiance, like the three-finger salute, or pro-democracy banners at sporting events, the recent pro-democracy rally was well planned and coordinated. It drew support, manpower and organization skills from established groups such as the Thai Student Centre for Democracy, the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy, and the Liberal Assembly of Chiang Mai University. Even a prominent anti-coup activist and founder of the Red Sunday Group, Sombat Boonngamanong, who is facing up to 14 years in prison for his political activities, came to show tacit support to the Resistant Citizen group by bailing out one of its leaders. Organizational assets like these crucial for oppositional activities to continue on the future.
No the Prayuth regime is not crumbling, but its foundations are shaking against the tides of rising dissent.
Aim Sinpeng is a Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney and Pasoot Lasuka provided invaluable advice on an earlier draft