After a brief period of intermission, protesters returned to the streets of Bangkok this past week. Unlike last year’s protests, clashes between protesters and the police are becoming more frequent. The increasing level of violence is a major risk to the movement that is already suffering from a dwindling number of protesters due to the pandemic.
A new strategy is urgently needed before all of the progress made is wasted.
Tension and anger in society is building up to an all-time high. Police brutality is also intensifying at a comparable rate. More worryingly, faith in peaceful protests is on a rapid decline as calls for physical retaliation against the authorities are echoed across social networks.
As Thailand builds up to what seems to be an inevitable violent climax, we need to remind ourselves of the big picture. If the goal is to restore Thailand’s democracy, it is paramount to recognize that violence is unlikely to give us what we want. We only need to look at what happened 44 years ago in this country.
The Thammasat Massacre in 1976 is a painful memory for every supporter of the movement.
Students with democratic aspirations were framed as communist insurgents and bombarded with military armament inside the university’s Tha Phra Chan campus. Driven by anger and vengeance, many of the students fled to the jungle to join the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) to receive combat training and munitions.
However, the CPT never stood a chance against the Thai military. The Sino-Soviet Split brought Thai government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) closer together through a common enemy in the pro-Soviet Vietnam. After the CCP agreed with the Thai government to stop funding and suspend weapon support, the CPT was doomed. They had no choice but to retreat from the jungles and surrender through an amnesty bill under Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda.
This mistake should never be repeated at any cost. The escalation of violence will only enhance the government’s legitimacy in its use of force and will only cause needless loss of lives when there is very little chance of winning.
Even if there is a chance of toppling this regime by force, it is an incredibly dangerous proposition to be hoping for. There are more than enough liberators-turned-dictators in this world. Muammar Gaddafi came to power by overthrowing Idris of Libya in a 1969 coup d’état under the pretext of liberating Libya from a “decadent regime.”
He would go on to become the longest-serving dictator in the history of Libya and the Arab World. There are simply no safeguards against revolutionary committees from becoming dictators themselves.
Instead of embracing violence, we should look to Ukraine’s victorious Orange Revolution for inspiration. Ukraine’s 2004 Presidential Election had everything Thailand is familiar with: massive corruption, ballot stuffing, electoral fraud, and voter intimidation.
The revolution started on 22 November 2004, one day after the Presidential Election. People rushed to Maidan – Kiev’s Independence Square – in a public display of defiance against electoral corruption. The movement was so popular that it was able to draw up to one million people to join on certain days, despite the freezing weather.
The movement was successful because it was peaceful and inclusive. People from all walks of life, all kinds of professions, of all ages were compelled to attend the protest and felt safe enough to do so. They did not fall into the trap of becoming violent, despite suffering from police intimidation. The movement quickly grew from just a few hundreds of people into an entire city – a tent city.
The movement was won on 3 December 2004 when the Supreme Court issued a verdict to annul the fraudulent election, which was unprecedented given the court’s tendency to side with the government. Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the opposition, would later be confirmed as the winner of the re-election on 11 January 2005, completing the peaceful revolution.
The latest round of violence is taking us further away from this path. Public mockery of the PDRC protesters and government supporters across social media is also widening the gap among the population even more. There is no chance of winning this fight if things keep progressing this way. The movement must be reconsidered and reimplemented to be more inclusive, more creative, and more peaceful.
PDRC rallies in 2014 were greatly successful in this regard. Their rallies felt safe enough for protesters to bring their children. They were also successful in recruiting people from various sectors of society. Thai Airways employees, doctors and nurses, rubber farmers, and university professors had absolutely nothing in common except for their dissatisfaction against Yingluck’s government.
It would be wise to replicate PDRC’s success.
What this movement needs is a show of defiance, not retaliation. It needs to gain the support of society’s hearts and minds. Restaurant businesses, musicians, healthcare workers, construction workers, new graduates, and airline industries are just a few groups of people already angry with the government.
If removing Prayut and his supporting cast is the common goal, there is definitely a very long line of people willing to participate, but not if the protests keep getting more and more violent.
This government’s endorsement of police brutality is unforgivable. But if this movement is to be won, emotion needs to be set aside. The escalating usage of force must stop before it is too late.