Will 2020 prove to be a watershed year? Or will the status quo be restored in 2021

In a country obsessed with oracles and fortune telling, few are more famous than one prophecy on Thailand’s political future. It has existed for years — some claim to have first read it in the 1980s — and continues to resurface periodically on the internet.

Written as poetry, the prophecy predicted that as the ninth reign nears a close, a political crisis will envelop the nation. Riots, the prophecy said, will happen, leading to bloodshed. Political division will be immense and the nation will be difficult to govern.

But the poem ends on a positive note. “Siam will become civilized, standing up after a great storm,” it declares. The masses will lead the country towards “a new era of the people.”

The country’s problems will cease. And so, “with faith, Thailand will exit the crisis, once the sky is golden and bright.” 

It is a prophecy that has been subject to endlessly differing interpretation for years. When Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister, detractors eagerly pointed out that one part of the prophecy had beseeched readers to “beware of the ascension to power of a female leader.”

Supporters of the 2014 military coup declared that Thailand had reached the stage of prosperity predicted in the poem’s last verse. Most recently, pro-reform protestors have taken inspiration that this same final verse surely signals that their efforts to bring in a new democratic era will be successful. 

They may have a point. The past year certainly felt like a turning point, the dawn of something new. But what, exactly, was it the dawn of? Far from being able to predict the future, we will need the hindsight of 2021 to pass judgment on 2020.

The government stumbled into the first year of the decade weak, its days looking numbered. Economic numbers, continued to look underwhelming, underperforming several neighbors. Several ministers were facing a censure debate that looked sure to embarrass them at minimum. The coalition looked fragile. Air quality was poor. And, needless to say, Thailand became the first country outside China to discover a case of the novel coronavirus. As the government dithered in its response, public confidence was not at all high that Thailand would succeed in containing this escalating epidemic. 

Yet, against the odds, it did, and for most of the year Thailand was one of the world’s most successful countries in suppressing the coronavirus. Economically the country suffered, but at the very least life returned to some semblance of normalcy relatively quickly. And from there, perspectives of 2020 will have diverged depending on which side of the political spectrum you belong to. 

On one hand, this was a year without precedent in modern Thai politics. The ignoble death of the Future Forward Party ignited a wave of fury that forced politics back onto the streets, creating a highly ideological mass movement. Norm after norm was shattered, shaking the aura of sanctity built over decades around the traditional institutions. At the local polls, the Progressive Movement demonstrated its base stuck with them. The economy, already weak pre-pandemic, has seen entire industries devastated by lockdowns and a dearth of tourism. Dissatisfaction with the status quo, it seems, is so high and so visible: how possibly could it be ignored?

But on the other hand, it was a year in which there was little concrete change. Indeed, the government probably ends the year stronger than when it began. Its parliamentary majority is safe. Waves of massive protests failed to fell the government. Stimulus policies such as the ‘Half and Half’ program have been popular. Many voters will remember that it was under Prayut that Thailand was spared the worst of the pandemic, at least until December.

The position of the monarchy, untouched by any of the reforms demanded by the protestors, remains secure. And towards the end of the year, conservative intellectuals began crafting their own pushback against new interpretations of Thai history.

Both progressives and conservatives enter the new year with reason to feel emboldened. So was 2020 a year where faith in old certainties faced an irreversible collapse? Or was it a year in which Thailand’s political system demonstrated its resilience and strength?

Only 2021 and beyond can tell what kind of change 2020 represented. If the protests continue next year and achieve lasting change, historians will look back and confirm that 2020 was indeed the dawn of a new era of popular change. But at the time of writing, it looks just as likely that 2020 could also be the year that confirmed the underlying tenacity of the status quo.

Still, with this new year upon us, let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Regardless of where you stand politically, I think that we can all celebrate that this past year had positive milestones of its own.

This past year, people across society overcome their differences and united in one common goal: to suppress the spread of a deadly virus. With the same fortitude and a bit of luck, Thailand will see similar success in ending this second wave.

This past year, intellectual curiosity was in vogue. Reading history books was not just a niche pastime but a general trend, as people sought both to build arguments and rebut others. Political theory was more trendy than quixotic. 

And this past year, people of all political stripes were always engaged politically in a variety of causes, keen to make their voice heard: both online and offline, at the ballot box and on the streets. An engaged citizenry is at the heart of any democracy, even if Thailand’s political system is still less than democratic. 

Reconciliation may still be the pipe dream it always was, a political system forged by consensus remains unreachable, and the economy still requires intensive care. It was a tough year. But at the very least, Thailand’s citizenry showed in 2020 that it is active, engaged and vibrant.

That may very well be exactly what is needed to bring in a new dawn for greater things. Perhaps, regardless of what happens next in Thai politics, the prophecy will be proven right after all.

Happy new year!

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