Disease, disruption, and dissent: 2020 has been a year marked by devastation. Any starry-eyed hopes the world had for the new decade were quickly dashed: the year began with an American drone attack assassinating the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, followed quickly by bushfires in Australia and later in California. And of course, 2020 cannot be complete without a mention of the microscopic virus from Wuhan’s wet market with an astronomical impact on virtually everyone around the globe.
As with much of the world, the pandemic and politics dominated Thai headlines this year, forming 2020’s year in review theme of teetering balance. For the government, this means balancing public health with political discontent and a struggling economy. For the people, it means grappling between staying safe on one hand, and standing up for civil rights on the other. With this in mind, this year in review explores politics in the midst of a pandemic.
Disbanded: Future Forward Party
Once the rising star of Thai politics, the Future Forward Party captured the attention of the nation with its strong performance in the 2019 elections, drawing enough votes to become the third largest party in parliament. The strong support it received, especially from young voters, signalled a growing tiredness of the old cycle of politics.
However, in February 2021, the Constitutional Court disbanded FFP and banned its leaders from entering politics for ten years over what many see as a technicality: the party accepted a loan from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which violated the political parties law. This sparked protests among those who are already weary of Prayut’s administration; they maintain that he came into power undemocratically and stayed through a self-designed constitution and unfair elections.
Surfaced: Inequality and Injustice
The protests may have somewhat died down shortly after restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, but its spirit certainly did not. As if to add salt to the wound, Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow was implicated in a heroin trafficking scandal in Australian. While he denied spending time in prison abroad and said it was just “flour” in the February 27 debate on his qualifications, his defense did not appease the public. Neither did an allegation on Facebook that his close aide was hoarding masks in the midst of a pandemic.
There seems to be no end to injustices that the Thai public could be outraged by: later in the year, prosecutors dropped all charges against fugitive Red Bull Scion Mr Vorayuth “boss” Yoovidhya, who was involved in a 2012 hit-and-run case. While public indignation led to a panel probe, this is another demonstration of inequality. For most Thais, it is all too familiar for the rich to just buy their way out of the justice system.
By December, another Constitutional Court case grabbed the attention of the public: the court unanimously acquitted Prayut of occupying an army house after retirement in purported violation of an army regulation.
Extended: the Emergency Decree
By mid-year, it seemed that the one thing Thailand admittedly did well was containing novel coronavirus. In doing so, the government enacted the Emergency Decree, which imposed curfew, limited travel, and censored media. These sweeping powers hark back to those imposed during the junta administration. It is therefore no surprise that the government drew heavy criticism for extending its Emergency Decree although there were no local transmissions for months; many accused the government of using the decree to maintain power in the face of public discontent.
Ignited: student protests
The acutely ailing economy, rampant structural inequality, and finally the sudden disappearance of activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit reignited waves of protests among the youth-led pro-democracy movement. It began three demands: constitution reform, dissolution of the House of Representatives, and cessation of harassment against government critics. It has since evolved into a widespread awakening on a wide range of issues, including abortion to LGBTQ+ rights, decrying sexual violence, reforming school uniforms, and freedom of speech.
On August 10th, protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul shocked the nation by reading out the 10 Demands for monarchy reform– an issue only previously discussed in hushed whispers in Thailand.
On October 14, Her Majesty the Queen’s Royal Motorcade passed by a group marching towards the Government House. Video footage showed protestors flashing the three-finger salute. Prayut then declared a state of emergency the next day, which was quickly lifted after backlash.
It progressively continued to gather momentum despite government crackdowns. Police use of water cannons and tear gas near Pathumwan intersection on October 16 shocked the country. Further planned protests were met with barbed wire and barricades reminiscent of dystopian movies, which the protestors faced off with the infamous yellow inflatable ducks.
Many protestors believe – and still do – that the government is not answering the demands of the people. While the government seemed to show willingness for reconciliation by accepting a charter amendment bill submitted by coalition parties and Pheu Thai, it rejected the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) bill that garnered over 100,000 votes. Prayut also declared that the government will enforce all applicable laws, a move widely seen as a political tool to intimidate dissidents. This enforcement includes Section 112 of the Criminal Code, against protestors. Since then, authorities have charged over at least 35 protestors including one minor under this law, of which the United Nations expressed grave concern for. Protestors have also been charged with sedition under Section 116.
Despite all this, protestors remain undeterred in advancing their core demands, especially regarding monarchy reform. Human Rights lawyer Arnon Nampha has stated that the movement remains committed and will conduct peaceful protests next year.
And now, finally:
2020 ended the same way it began: with desperate attempts to contain the coronavirus outbreak spreading from a market, except this time it is at home in Samut Sakhon.
In retrospect, the balance has not always been struck right this year. But one thing is certain: the decisions we were faced with transformed our society in irreversible ways. The pandemic forced startling economic downturn and a new normal. Politically, the pandora’s box of monarchy reform has been opened and cannot be shut again.
What will 2021 bring? Needless to say, Thailand will be entering next year with a much more skeptical outlook. With regards to the pandemic, COVID-19 will continue to affect all aspects of life. The race to acquire a vaccine will be at the forefront of headlines. Inequality will evince again: there will be those who can afford the vaccine and those who cannot. Politically, protestors will have to balance and rebalance the adverse impact of the virus with civil rights. Indeed, COVID-19 exacerbated existing symptoms of issues that Thailand has been facing for a very long time. 2020 may just be the curtain call for a decade where we confront the underlying diseases, both literally and figuratively, in our society.
The new normal, with all its restrictions and hardship, is here to stay. But one cannot help but hope: the spirit and the awakening that the protests brought will remain too.