Student protests in Southeast Asia have brought down dictators before: What Thailand’s students can learn

The ground seems to be moving beneath our feet. Across the nation, protests have spread like wildfire. Many have been led under the ‘Free Youth’ or #เยาวชนปลดแอก banner, but the turnout has spanned geographies and generations. There are the students in their white shirts, symbols of virtuosity and restlessness, but there are also aunties with signs displaying their razor-sharp wit, defiantly dressed feminists, and trans / LGBTQ activists calling for broader gender equality. At each protest, the three demands are repeated: rewrite the constitution, hold new elections, and end the harassment of dissidents. And as the sun sets, phone flashlights light up the crowd – prickles of light that connect one protest with the next.

It feels unprecedented, but paradoxically, also very familiar. In Thailand, there are echoes of 1973. But across Southeast Asia, a region beset by dictators, there are resonances too: to First Quarter Storm, the 1970 Philippine student-led protests against President Ferdinand Marcos, and the 1998 Indonesian student movement against Suharto. But while the student movement successfully drove Suharto’s resignation in 1998, the 1970 Philippine protests eventually lost steam, and Marcos remained in power until 1981.

Why did one succeed where the other failed? And what does the Thai protest movement have to learn from this history?

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Corazon Aquino wear 26 january 1986 uniform T-shirts at a campaign rally in nearby Bicutan district of Manila. The T-shirt message calls for an end of the 20 years rule of her election rival President Ferdinand Marcos whose portrait appears in the shirts. (Photo by ROMEO GACAD / AFP)

Philippines: First Quarter Storm

There are manifold answers to such a question, but in their report on the Philippine protests, the CIA offers one: lack of coalition-building among the First Quarter Storm student protestors.

In November 1969, Marcos became Philippine’s first two-term President, winning in a landslide. But his Presidential campaign involved a $50m program of debt-funded infrastructure to win over the public. The debt triggered a Balance of Payments crisis, which was eventually resolved with a loan from the IMF. But as with all IMF loans, it came with strings attached: Marcos was forced to devalue the peso. As a result, a period of steep inflation followed – triggering nation-wide economic instability.

The extreme cost of Marcos’ power grab did not go unnoticed by the general public. Moreover, there was widespread suspicion that Marcos intended to rewrite the constitution to so Presidents could serve more than two terms – thereby cementing his dictatorship, much in the way the Thai Senate has cemented the army’s continued hold over Thai politics.

On 26 January 1970, the first protest took place. Students gathered before the Congress building and threw stones and bottles at the President. Within four days, a rally led by students marched back to Congress, before turning toward Marcos’ house with the Philippine flag held high and Molotov cocktails in (some of their) hands. For every few days thereafter, major protests took place, all the way until the March 17 ‘People’s March’, which saw protestors walk through the ghettoes of Manila to highlight poverty and income inequality.

But after that, the protests dissipated. The school year had come to an end. The mass of students concentrated on campuses was no more – and so the movement was no more, too. There was no other bloc large enough to continue organizing in Manila’s police-infested streets.

“In view of the fragmentation of the student movement and its lack of support to date from other sectors of society,” closes the CIA report, “the political establishment believes it does not have to bestir itself toward instituting social and economic reform.”

Students of the University of Indonesia (UI) hold a anti-government banners that reads “Of 202 million people, why Suharto” and “Suharto Again? No Way!” as they march around the campus during a rally in Jakarta 09 March. Some 1,000 students protested Suharto’s expected appointment for a seventh five-year term. AFP PHOTO/ROMEO GACAD (Photo by ROMEO GACAD / AFP)

Indonesia: the ‘Informal Proletariat’

In contrast, the Indonesian protests were successful because they garnered support from blocs across society – not only as individual protestors, but as organizers who had as much of a stake in the protests as the students.

Indonesia, like Thailand, has a large informal labor class – the ‘informal proletariat’, political scientist Max Lane calls it. Unlike traditionally employed, union-allied labor, the informal proletariat have minimal financial security, their socioeconomic life is often tied to their neighborhood rather than their workplace, and their employment is fluid and sometimes illegal (unlicensed street stalls, carts).  

In the early 1990s, the radicalized youth and student activists formed the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PRD), which they used as a base for cultivating allies across a broad spectrum. They worked with peasants to help them occupy land taken over by golf courses, commercial garden farming and urban developments. They supported strikes organized by factory workers and student-worker coalitions, eventually forming their own PRD-affiliated union which mobilized a series of strikes from 1994 onwards.

Most importantly, they had buy-in from the informal proletariat. By 1996, the Suharto dictatorship began answering the PRD-instigated protests and student-worker mobilization with state violence. The police and the military violently suppressed protests and attacked the headquarters of opposition parties and unions. These attacks provoked widespread riots among the informal proletariat. They rioted at malls and government buildings, symbols of the elite’s consumption and exploitation of the poor. From June 1996 to late 1997, it was mainly the industrial and informal proletarians who came out in the hundreds of thousands against Suharto.   

After that, the students had everything in their favor to once again take to the streets to demand Suharto’s resignation. By taking the protests from the campuses to the fields and the factories, Suharto’s opponents made themselves unavoidable – and immensely powerful in the process. It was the urban poor or ‘informal proletariat’ that spearheaded widespread anti-government mobilization in 1997 that gave the students their momentum. By 1998, the ruling elite were so frightened that Suharto was pressured to step down.

Protesters take part in a Hamtaro-themed “fun run” during an anti-government rally in front of Democracy Monument in Bangkok on July 26, 2020. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Implications for Thailand: Looking Beyond Traditional Allies

Where does that leave #เยาวชนปลดแอก?

The current cross-generational nature of student-led protest turnout can be fleeting, as the First Quarter Storm protests tell us. A movement built and centered around campuses becomes overly dependent on the rhythm of the school year, on the personalities of certain students, on the (often fragile) unity among student leadership.

Rather, a dedicated attempt at cross-class coalition building – involving leaders, organizers and agitators from farming communities, informal laborers and factory workers – is critical to keep the protest momentum going over the many years it will take to create political change. The waves of protest in Indonesia came from different factions of society. In some important cases, as in 1996, protests barely involved student leadership at all.

More importantly, student leaders must look beyond traditional allies. Calls for current student protest leaders to link up with trade unions or opposition parties are important, but far from enough. As seen with the Red Shirt protests in 2010, real social change comes from tapping into the concerns of the informal proletariat. Amid a pandemic that has widened the income gap further, there are more than enough problems to amplify.

Ultimately, returning power to the people means recognizing the breadth and depth of who ‘the people’ really are. A cross-class coalition will give students the vital support and momentum needed to keep going.

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