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The struggle continues for Thailand's opposition

Emmy Sasipornkarn
January 13, 2020

Rumblings of discontent against Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha are growing louder less than a year after a disputed election saw the junta chief return as head of government. His critics are now getting creative.

Thai protesters flash a salute ahead of their "Run Against Dictatorship"
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Antonov

More than 14,000 runners and supporters participated in the "Run Against Dictatorship" event in Bangkok at the crack of dawn on January 12. It was the biggest show of dissent against Prayuth in years.    

The run clearly demonstrated "a desire for people to air their grievances," James Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong and researcher on Thai history and politics, told DW.

Last year's election was supposed to mark a significant step toward the country's restoration of full democracy after nearly five years of military rule. But critics contend that the electoral system is rigged in favor of the pro-military party.

Meanwhile, a stuttering economy has also fueled discontent with Prayuth's regime. The Thai government is suffering from the "Prayuth Fatigue," according to Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University.

"Thais are tired of seeing the same general (and his cronies) in power amidst continuing economic malaise," he said.

4K protest run in Thailand

Run versus walk

Government supporters concurrently staged a rival event on Sunday called "Walk to Cheer Uncle," a reference to the prime minister's nickname, Uncle Tu. Thousands turned out for the event, which was held at another park in the capital.

The two events reflect the rising political tensions between the opposing factions in Thailand, which has seen two military coups, sporadic street protests and turbulent politics over the past 20 years.

The latest survey released by Super Poll in early January this year showed that the number of voters who do not side with either camp has dwindled significantly since the March 24 election — from 56.1% last April to 29.4% at the start of 2020.

More Thais have taken sides in a contest between pro and anti-government camps, with 36.6% joining the former and 34% supporting the latter.

"This is ominous for political stability and government," said Super Poll Research Office director Noppadol Kannikar, adding that the narrowing margin is a worrying sign of an increased risk of confrontation.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's upstart Future Forward party shook up Thai politics when it came third in the elections last year
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's upstart Future Forward party shook up Thai politics when it came third in the elections last yearImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Antonov

Both events took place around one month after Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose upstart Future Forward party shook up Thai politics when it came third in the elections last year, staged an unauthorized flash mob drawing thousands of supporters.

However, the 41-year-old politician is now facing charges for organizing the anti-government rally in the latest wave of lawsuits against the party.

The end of Future Forward?

Thailand's constitutional court is expected to rule later this month on whether to dissolve Future Forward based on accusations that the party's inverted triangle logo is similar to a symbol of the Illuminati, a name used for fictitious and historical groups that conspiracy mongers claim aim for world domination.

In another case, the Election Commission alleged that the embattled party violated election laws by accepting loans advanced by Thanathorn.

"It seems inevitable that Future Forward will be disbanded. I think that decision has been made already, perhaps long ago. The only question remaining is which of the numerous cases currently lined up against them will be used as a pretext," Buchanan told DW.

Sunday's rally was the biggest show of dissent against PM Prayuth in years
Sunday's rally was the biggest show of dissent against PM Prayuth in yearsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Lalit

Chambers echoed these thoughts and said that the party's "highly likely" dissolution is because "Thailand's aristocracy and senior military genuinely fear that Thanathorn's continuing popularity could threaten their vested interests."

The Thai establishment is manipulating the judiciary to control power in the same way as it did with previous opposition factions, most notably those backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Buchanan said. Parties linked to Thaksin, who lives in self-exile since he was overthrown in 2006, had won all previous elections held in the country since 2001. 

"Now that Future Forward Party has emerged as an even greater threat to the status quo than the Thaksin parties, it's not surprising that the establishment has reached for the same tool that has served it so well in the past," Buchanan said. 

In November last year, the court found Thanathorn guilty of holding shares in a media company when he registered to run for the March general election and disqualified him as a member of parliament.

"Destroying Thanatorn and his political organization are all about preserving the illusion of democracy and sustaining a regime manufactured by, for and of the military as endorsed by the monarchy," Chambers said.

Thailand: tangible anger

Future of Thai democracy movement

If Future Forward is disbanded, Buchanan predicted that the "blatant unfairness" could frustrate and fatigue the pro-democracy movement because many have already been suffering countless similar injustices over the past 15 years. He also raised a question about how the faction could "re-energize and remobilize a movement that has already been through so much." 

But Buchanan did not rule out the possibility of other figures taking Thanathorn's place at the helm of the movement, such as Run Against Dictatorship organizer Tanawat Wongchai.

The seemingly untouchable position that the government currently enjoys, which in the short term will see junta-controlled courts undermining pro-democracy movements in Thailand, could eventually buckle under the pressure.

"With the voice of the people increasingly silenced in parliament, more people will take to the streets to make their voices heard," Chambers said. 

"Repressing them can only be temporary," he added. "Thai elites will eventually have to make concessions to reformers. The only question is when."

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