Thai protests and the possibility of a South East Asian spring

“The geographies of these protests have been different,” wrote Eli Elinoff for the Isaan Record, on Thailand’s October protests.

Thailand’s current pro-democracy protests have redrawn the maps in different and powerful ways: the expansion of protests to sixty-two different protests are recalibrating Bangkok’s symbolic and geographic centrality, the #MilkTeaAlliance is re-imaging Asian regionalism with dissent at the core of cross-national solidarity. Twitter has facilitated alliances that span K-Pop fandoms and democratic socialist ‘rose emoji’ users across the globe.

Across Southeast Asia, among Thailand’s authoritarian neighbors, Thai protests are also raising questions.

As the protests continued unabated into their second week, #WhatIsHappeningInIndonesia and #WhatIsHappeningInPhilippines began trending in conjunction with the Thai protest hashtag #WhatIsHappeningInThailand. The hashtag #IfLaosPoliticsWasGood began trending soon after (#ຖ້າການເມືອງລາວດີ). 

“Actually, I set up the [Lao Politics] hashtag,” admits Suzy [pseudonym employed for safety purposes], the Laotian Twitter user @kanwendysblue.

She speaks and writes in Thai, as she consumes mostly Thai media and correspondents frequently with Thai twitter users. Thailand’s size and geographic proximity to Laos has forged strong cultural and linguistic ties between the two nations, and Laotians feel a certain kinship with residents of Thailand’s oft-neglected Northeastern region. 

“I think Laos can learn from Thailand. The Thai movement is creating inspiration for Laotians to stand up and ask for their rights,” says Suzy. 

Laos remains a one-party socialist republic, ruled autocratically by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The current secretary general, Bounnhang Vorachith, is currently serving his first five-year term. No one would be surprised if he got a second one – his predecessors ruled for ten to fifteen years. The Laotian government’s repressiveness was recently highlighted by pan-Asian democratic activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal. His ‘Free Muay’ campaign spotlights the arrest of a Laotian social media influencer after she posted a video criticizing the government’s delayed response to 2019 floods. 

However, fear of further government reprisal will stem attempts to transform any viral hashtag into street protests.

“Last year, we had a protest and eight of the leaders were arrested,” Suzy laments. “It will take many more years for us to get to that stage.” 

In contrast, in the Philippines, Thai protests have amplified existing discontent against President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.

“There was a small protest today [October 21],” says Angelo Lantin, a Manila resident. “People online are framing it as a response to what’s happening in Thailand – maybe it has been a galvanizing force, kind of what was happening in the Arab Spring.” 

There has long been frustration with Duterte’s open populism and ‘strongman’ rule. His bloody ‘war on drugs’ and war against communist insurgents have been criticized for human rights abuse. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Duterte pulled a page out of Thai Prime Minster Prayudh Chan O-Cha’s book and signed an anti-terror law into effect which would grant him sweeping powers and permit warrantless arrests. Unlike Thailand, however, Duterte’s government also mishandled their COVID-19 response: as of October, the Philippines continues to see more than 2,000 cases daily. 

The focus of recent Philippine protests has been the mistreatment of Reina Mae Asis Nasino, an activist who was arrested under Duterte’s new anti-terror law. She was jailed while pregnant, spent her entire pregnancy in jail and separated from her child soon after the baby’s birth. Three months later, her baby passed away due to acute respiratory distress – Reina Mae Nasino was granted just 6 hours across three days to bury her dead child. 

“There are so many appalling things happening over the past four years that it makes you lose hope,” Lantin professes. “But when I see what’s happening in Thailand, it gives me hope: I want to believe that Filipinos can look past this cult of personality, see the fascists for who they are and stand up the way that people in Thailand are standing up.” 

“Thailand has been in for a very long fight, but the Philippines has been fighting for a long time too. I want to see them move hand in hand with the protesters in Thailand.”

This sentiment is echoed across the Celebes Sea, where Indonesians have also looked to Thai protests for inspiration. 

In early October, tens of thousands of Indonesians took to the streets to protest against the Omnibus” law, which is aimed at attracting investment to stimulate the Indonesian economy. To do so, however, President Jodo Widodo has proposed relaxing 79 of Indonesia’s business, labor and environmental laws – significantly weakening labor bargaining power. Trade unions and workers have condemned the bill, with planned national strikes. 

“Thailand matters to Indonesia, because we feel what they felt on October 16, the kind of police reaction, and the hardship of doing demonstrations,” relates Gilang Al Ghifari Lukman, an Indonesian postgraduate student at Oxford. “I hope that conditions in both Indonesia and Thailand improve soon.” 

On Twitter, Thai protests have become a marker for first-rate protest behavior, with norms and tactics that Indonesians want their protesters to learn from. Multiple tweets highlight the peacefulness of the protests, the strict adherence to protest ending times, continued efforts to clean up after demonstrations and to let ambulances pass through, no matter how packed the protests are. “Indonesia should follow this model,” one reads. 

However, Gilang recognizes that the narrative cuts both ways: looking up to Thai protests can mean taking legitimacy away from Indonesian ones. “The kind of people who say ‘we should follow Thailand, we should be peaceful, we shouldn’t vandalize’ delegitimize the Indonesian protests, because the Indonesian protests are violent. It romanticizes the Thai peaceful experience to say that Indonesians, because we are too violent, shouldn’t be.” 

Ultimately, it is unclear whether the momentum of Thai protest will spread regionally. While other Southeast Asian countries have their own flashpoints, many current protests remain plagued by similar problems that have historically held Thai pro-democracy movements back: the sheer authoritarianism of their governments, and a divided people. In the Philippines, Duterte’s approval rating recently climbed to 91%, while Indonesian politics still remains divided across racial fault lines that inform pro / anti-government positions. In Laos, it is unlikely that any hashtag can begin to move the mountains it will take to displace the government. 

But for the first time, it feels like there is hope. That people are willing to talk about the taboo, to rebel against longstanding authority. Minority voices are being heard. And across the region, dissenters are listening, and amplifying one another. 

‘Southeast Asia’ has often felt like a contrived region, especially given ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention which is often read as ASEAN inaction. Despite geographic proximity, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have often been separated by what appears to be a gulf of cultural and linguistic difference. For the first time, however, it feels like people are speaking across these gulfs. 

While the Southeast Asian spring has not yet come, the Thai protests have sparked a bottoms-up solidarity that won’t be disappear anytime soon. Hopefully, this will shift the geography of future protest. 

[Photo taken in Taiwan by Ceng Shou Yi for Thai Enquirer. Follow more of his work here]
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