We spoke with Professor Allen Hicken, professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, about the protests in Thailand. Professor Hicken discusses the deep polarization of Thailand in part due to the ongoing protests for the past decade, the demands for reform of the Thai monarchy, and the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP). Lastly, we speak about the future of Thailand, the influence of technology on the movement, and Professor Hicken’s prediction on how the Thai government and monarchy will respond to the youth’s demands.
00:08:07 “The general impression is that the son, Vajiralongkorn, is a much less popular figure. He’s not well liked, he’s led a very extravagant, controversial lifestyle. He mostly resided outside of Thailand, in Germany and was seen by not just by many Thais common people, but also some members of Thailand’s elite as not a good successor to his father. Nonetheless, we’re seeing these feelings expressed in the protest, mocking his position, mocking his lifestyle and his wives. He is a much less revered figure than his father. But he still represents this institution that many Thais hold in great revere. You’ll talk to a lot of Thais who love the institution, love the father, and put up with the son. They are willing to put up with the son because they respect the institution. But a lot of Thais feel like not only is the son not a great leader, but the institution itself needs reform and sort of outlived its usefulness. “
00:12:15 Effect of COVID-19 on protests “COVID-19 helps explain a little about the timing, but mostly it explains the delayed timing. These protests were starting in the end of last year and then go into hibernation once COVID-19 hits and then comes back out of hibernation in July. COVID-19 is important because it adds to the grievances. Thailand actually handled COVID-19 really well in terms of controlling the disease, but its economy has been decimated. The tourism industry shut down, the economy collapsed, and this was on top of an already very weak economy with major structural problems to the economy. It’s fueled grievances and upset feelings against this current government but the protests are coming out of long simmering grievances and then the triggers. You know why now? I guess when we think about the long simmering grievances, there’s just been this this division since 2005, at least between support. In Thailand, it’s called the red shirts and the yellow shirts. The red shirts- the supporters of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and others who are winning elections who are largely based outside of Bangkok. Then the yellow shirts, who are supporters of the conservative classes, middle class, upper class, highly concentrated Bangkok in the South of Thailand and who claim to be defending and love the monarchy. That polarization existed in Thailand that was the pretext for the pretext of 2014 coup. You have resentment over the military’s rule since 2014 and the 2019 election that was held under auspices that were not free and fair in by most accounts. And then this entrenchment of Thailand’s conservative forces. The Constitution that was written by the military really has entrenched, I call it the Containment Constitution. It’s designed to make it hard for elected politicians to exercise any power and to really entrench the power of Thailand’s conservative elite, the military and the monarchy. All these things were again long simmering resentments, things that had been major concerns, and were already leading to protests.”
00:15:10 “Coming out of the election in 2019, the Future Forward party was the third largest party. It was this party that had come out of nowhere and surprised people. It did much better than people predicted. It won 17% of the vote just behind the Military Party. It’s the third largest party and it was the alternative to those who are against the military government, but also didn’t like Thaksin and were uncomfortable voting for parties affiliated with him. More importantly, this is the direct line to these protests. It was the overwhelming choice of young voters. It ran the most explicitly, an aggressively anti-military campaign that we’ve seen in Thailand since 1970s. It called openly for military reform, it demanded the military exit politics for good and once the election was over, it was the most consistent reformist voice in Parliament. It takes the lead at efforts to hold the government accountable. The problem is that that this voice of dissent from within the institutions of government was too much, even though it was confined to the opposition. It becomes the chief target of the government. The leader of this party gets banned from office before he can even actually take his seat on pretty dubious charges. Then the party is dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February of earlier this year, and his leaders are banned from politics for 10 years. The treatment of Future Forward and this leader is what sparks the beginning of the protest movements last winter. Since that time, the abduction and presumed death of a Thai dissident in Cambodia which happened in June, which helped spark the protests in in July. And then responses to recent acts by this current monarch to increase his power. The King has done a lot of pretty controversial things in the past few years, and these protesters have been a response.”