Last weekend in Thailand, protestors demanding changes in the Thai constitution, new elections, an end to harassment of activists and other government critics, the reduction of the role of the army in politics, and other major changes rallied in Bangkok. Around 2,500 people gathered in the Thai capital, and smaller groups gathered in other cities in Thailand, in the first major public protest since COVID-19 hit the country. Some of the demonstrators followed up, earlier this week, with smaller protests at army headquarters and other sites, to criticize the government’s harsh approach to dissent and opposition political voices.
The protests may signal the return of some degree of the angry and contested street politics that had erupted in Thailand late last year, after Thailand’s pro-military party, relying on a constitution midwifed by the armed forces, put together a coalition to control parliament after last year’s elections. Despite the elections, opponents of the government continued to insist—with a fair amount of credibility—that the election had not been fair, and they turned out sizable numbers for demonstrations in Bangkok late last year. The opposition’s anger only grew when, in February and before Thailand really had to grapple with COVID-19, the country’s top court dissolved a leading opposition party, Future Forward. The decision banned Future Forward’s top leaders from politics for ten years.
COVID-19, however, slammed a door on street actions, and the Thai government—like many governments in Southeast Asia—also utilized the pandemic to restrict Thais’ freedoms and amass more power. To be sure, after initial missteps in addressing the virus, the Thai government’s public health response has been exemplary. The government has overseen near-universal adoption of face masks, has bolstered the country’s already-strong public health system, and has instituted relatively tough lockdown measures months back, and in a more organized way than neighboring states like Indonesia. Thailand, a country of roughly 70 million, has had only around 3,200 total confirmed COVID-19 cases and 58 deaths, and it has not had locally-transmitted cases of COVID-19 in weeks. (Florida, with a population of around 21.5 million people, had 9,440 new cases in one day earlier this week.)
At the same time, though, the Thai government has utilized the pandemic to declare a state of emergency. The emergency may have been medically necessary, but Bangkok also has banned public assembly, cracked down on the news media, arrested activists who criticize the government, and prosecuted social media users who criticize the government as well.
With Thailand returning to a kind of normality, the demonstrators are testing whether they can push the country to its pre-pandemic political status—and challenge whether the government can claim to be so successful in fighting COVID-19 while also needing the state of emergency and to maintain total control over demonstrations and other types of dissent. Last year, before Future Forward was banned, popular anger had been building against the Thai government, which seemed relatively shaky. What’s more, the Thai protestors may be setting an example for other opposition movements in Southeast Asia, where in countries like Cambodia and Malaysia governments also have used the pandemic to amass more powers—yet at the same time have largely contained COVID-19.
But if the Thai government, which recently extended the state of emergency, cracks down hard on the demonstrators, filing charges against leaders and possibly taking even tougher measures, it may show that Thailand has moved into an even more repressive phase of politics than it inhabited last year.