Bangkok’s smog makes outside physical activity a little less than an inviting prospect, but tens of thousands braved the pollution today for a curious Sunday morning activity: exercise with a heavy political tone. ‘Run Against Dictatorship’ (#วิ่งไล่ลุง, literally ‘Run to Oust Uncle’) and ‘Walk for Prayut’ (#เดินเชียร์ลุง, or ‘Walk to Cheer Uncle’) were the most significant political rallies since the 2014 coup. Both had opposing objectives: one was intended as a rally against the Prayut Chan-o-cha government, and the latter as a show of support. What did those rallies teach us, and what are their ramifications?
1. The rallies
There had been an appetizer to whet the long unsatisfied appetites of political observers, of course, in the form of Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit’s flashmob last month. But these demonstrations were different; they were planned in advance, and as such make for a much better test of strength for their respective movements.
Crowd size estimation is a science at which I lack proficiency and thus will not attempt, so we will have to take reports at face value. The official estimate for the turnout for the Run Against Dictatorship is 13,000, while Walk for Prayut drew in 10,000 according to the Bangkok Post. If these numbers are true, the two rallies generated similar levels of enthusiasm.
We have to factor in, however, the fact that running is a considerably more strenuous activity than walking and this need for physical exercise might have depressed turnout at the anti-Prayut rally; another factor for consideration is that it faced considerably more bureaucratic obstruction than its pro-government counterpart. Even so, Run Against Dictatorship was easily the biggest rally in Thailand in years.
Something that was interesting about the two activities were how they clearly delineated the demographic divide. Participants in Walk for Prayut seemed like an older crowd, which fits anecdotal understanding that there is a generational divide in Thailand between the young, which overwhelmingly supported pro-democracy parties at the general election last year, and the old.
But it should also be pointed out that Run Against Dictatorship demonstrated clearly that it had ‘converts’, so to speak, by staging an activity where former PDRC protestors came up to the stage to destroy their whistles. This does not surprise me; anecdotally, the long period of military rule has converted many Thais — including those who have long been opposed to Thaksin Shinawatra — into Future Forward supporters.
2. The ramifications
Are there likely to be any concrete consequences from the rallies? Probably not. The government will not fall unless the coalition falls apart, and this does not seem like an impending possibility given that the prime minister is fresh off a budget victory. There were no demands given, other than a call for the resignation of the prime minister. In the short term, nothing has changed.
But if nothing else, the two dueling rallies illustrated the return of civic engagement and political expression. Political space has, ever so slightly, been opened up, although of course still subject to the rules and regulations set by those in power. I think that this alone is important — the image of freedom to conduct public protests, even if illusionary, can lead to more momentum of its own.
Also important is the message today’s activities send: that the Thai people are committed to democracy. A fundamental cornerstone of democracy is the expression of differing political opinions, and today’s events saw two very different ones situated side-by-side in Bangkok. I believe that this is an encouraging sign. One side may not have expressed ideas that were pro-democracy, but a commitment to free speech would demand that we listen to them regardless, even if we choose to reject them.
Yet this juxtaposition is also a reminder of the deep polarization that engulfs Thailand. Lumpini Park and Suan Rod Fai are not close, but the rallies were even further apart ideologically. There appears to be no middle ground between what the two sides want. One is in favor of drastic system change, with a new constitution and government. The other is heavily in favor of the status quo, as the very lack of democracy that one side rails against perfectly suits the other. The rallies today were proxies for many things in Thailand: pro and anti-democracy, pro and anti-military, pro and anti-constitutional revision.
Looking forward, this is likely a prelude of things to come in 2020. Future Forward’s impending dissolution early this year will likely spark larger, even more furious protests as parliament is closed off to millions of people who voted for this upstart party. That would indeed be akin to opening a pandora’s box that will unleash energy on the streets beyond what we have seen today.