Warwick ASEAN Conference

The Political Conflict between the Old and the Young

The 2020 Student Protests

Back in February this year, student protests erupted across the Thai nation from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and Khon Kaen to Phitsanulok to signify their dissatisfaction against the Prayut Chan-ocha government. Earlier this year, the Constitution Court ordered for the opposition party –Future Forward- to be dissolved, this triggered thousands of normally docile students to hold rallies expressing their discontent. Although the dissolution was a direct result of Future Forward accepting a large loan from its leader, thereby breaking the election law, many believe that the dissolution was largely also due to the party’s critical stance towards the government and the military. Recently formed, but extremely popular amongst the young due to its anti-establishment stance, the party won the third-highest number of seats in the general election last year. With millennials as the core base for the party, their support translated into over 6.3 million votes in the March 2019 election. A research conducted by a political science professor at Brighman Young University showed that 41% of those aged 18-29 preferred Future Forward, whilst only 9.91% of Thais above age 55 did so. Fuelled further by the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this has intensified the youths’ accusations towards the government’s incompetence and allegations of corruption.

Following the end of most COVID-19 restrictions, a rally led by the Free Youth group gathered to peacefully protest once again near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok in July. The second wave of the political demonstration was staged to voice three demands: the dissolution of the House, a rewrite of the constitution, and an end to official and judicial harassment of those critical to the government. Moreover, this rally has been used to emphasise the protesters’ anger regarding the government’s response to issues that have arisen during this pandemic. The main points raised included the government’s mishandling of the quarantine of an Egyptian military delegation in Rayong, their unwillingness to investigate the disappearance of an anti-government activist -Wanchalearm Satsaksit- who was self-exiled in Phnom Penh, and their order to place a man who wore a T-shirt stating “I have lost faith in the monarchy” to a psychiatric ward.

It is rare for a student mass activism of this scale to occur in Thailand, this has not happened for decades. However, according to Dr Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, there has been a long-brewing phenomenon that has emerged from the post-coup atmosphere in 2014.  

Exploring the History leading up to the Thai Youth’s Anti-Establishment Stance

The first time General Prayut Chan-ocha came to power was in 2014 when he led a coup and took power from Yingluck, the current government at that time. Up until then, Thailand was filled with numerous street demonstrations and coups hence the people decided to elect him as government in hopes that democracy and peace will be restored.
What primarily caused the younger generation to view the government as incompetent, was the fact that Thailand had become a laggard in ASEAN where annual growth slowed from 5.3% in 2001-06 to 3% in 2014-19 and was overtaken by regional peers. From the voting results on March 19, the youth’s discontent was illustrated through the 13.7% of voters that comprised first-timers and the rapid rise of the Future Forward Party that strived for structural reforms with the aim of moving Thailand forward and offered civilians a progressive platform against military control.

Deeper Insight into Youth Protests

With the dissolution of the Future Forward Party acting as a catalyst for the student protests, and for those simply frustrated with the country’s state, the demand for the removal of senators who helped Prayut Chan-ocha retain his government role unwaveringly remains. Alongside the long-kept frustration, protesters have come up with creative ways to show their defiance. The theme song for Hamtaro, a Japanese Hamster character, has been used as an anti-government anthem where the line “the most delicious food is sunflower seeds” was changed to “the most delicious food is taxpayers’ money”.  Protesters have also adopted the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games and used Twitter as a tool to organise “flash mob” type protests across the country. These symbols are also a tactic to avoid political censorship, an issue that has been bubbling underneath the surface of this country which is believed to have worsened the lack of understanding between the old and the young.

Political Censorship and the Generational Divide

For generations, one of the norms in Thai society is that political matters are confined to the realm of ‘state-business’. The use of high-strung vocabulary in the news and media consequently segregates the learned from those without access to higher education whilst pushing them to the periphery.

Another norm is that youths must be polite and obedient towards their elders. This perception is so deeply ingrained in Thai society that those who defy this will be perceived as ‘bad’ and ‘radical’, hence those who do understand politics are reluctant to voice their opinions upfront. As a result, one may view these cultural values, particularly the repressive environment for the young which deepened the generational divide, as a significant role in driving youths to self-censor so as to avoid social pressures in hopes of having their opinions heard. Nevertheless, it is understandable, to an extent, why most of the older generation cannot relate to Thai youths’ discontent because both generations were shaped by different events and lived through different circumstances. The older generation has struggled through Thaksin’s corrupted regime and the chaos of the red and yellow shirts, it is therefore only natural that they yearn for stability and order.  
With student protests being the largest in decades in 2020, and judging from the current situation, their long-kept anger will not easily dissipate without change. This, therefore, highlights the importance of communication between generations rather than the dismissal of opinions due to one’s age in order to achieve stability and peace. Keeping in mind that Thailand’s median age is 38 and one-third of the 70-million population is under 35, ignoring these voices of those that will soon be the future of Thailand can risk forcing the country into peril, giving way to an unhealthy society. The students and the elders should both adopt an open mindset in order to narrow down the generational divide.

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