LSUMMER ASTDespite the tropical heat and humidity, more than 10,000 demonstrators, mostly young, marched on several occasions through central Bangkok. The demonstrations had a carnival atmosphere. Students dressed as Harry Potter, to better defeat the one-who-must-not-be-named (King Maha Vajiralongkorn); held in the air giant yellow ducks (a popular symbol with democracy activists around the world); and launched the three-fingered salute inspired by “The Hunger Games,” a series of books and films about resistance to tyranny. The demonstrators had three demands: the end of the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the chief general of the coup d’etat who installed himself as prime minister; the adoption of a new constitution to replace that drawn up by the army; and a reduction in the powers of the monarchy.
Protests continue, but in recent months crowds have rarely exceeded 3,000. On some days only a few hundred show up. The youth-led democratic movement seems to be running out of steam. “Even among the leaders of the protest, we are lost,” said Yanisa Varaksapong, an 18-year-old activist. “With the arrest of our friends and the reaction of people, who are not as ready to go out on the streets as they were last year.”
Five factors contributed to the decrease in numbers. The first was a spike in covid-19 cases at the end of December, which briefly ended the protests. Second, when the students returned to the streets, the police greeted them with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Third, the coup in neighboring Myanmar on February 1 and subsequent pro-democracy protests in that country have distracted the attention of the international community. Fourth, factionalism among the organizers eroded popular support.
But the fifth and most important factor is fear. In recent months, after a two-year hiatus, the government has resumed accusing people of lèse majesté, or insult the monarchy, which is punishable by 15 years in prison. Mercy is rare. Several prominent protest leaders, including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a student activist, and Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, have been detained under the law and denied bail.
The arrests changed the democratic movement, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University. “You only see sporadic protests,” he says. “And most of these sporadic protests have only one goal: to call for the release of their friends.” On March 15, Mr. Parit went on a hunger strike to demand bail, helping to keep protesters detained in public view.
Paul Chambers of Naresuan University argues that despite the downsizing, the government has not come out of the woods. Long-term challenges mount. Mr Prayuth, who seized power in a coup in 2014, is increasingly unpopular. The economy, heavily dependent on tourism, shrank by more than 6% last year. In January, tourist arrivals were 99.8% lower than the same month in 2020. This week, parts of Bangkok entered partial lockdown after an increase in the number of new cases of covid-19.
Although Mr Prayuth pushed through an authoritarian constitution and then manipulated court rules and procedures to minimize opposition representation in parliament, the opposition MPs always succeed in embarrassing the government. They have tabled repeated no-confidence motions against Mr Prayuth and his ministers and tried to change the constitution to make it more democratic. While none of these efforts were successful, they kept the spotlight on the government’s failures.
“I think the mood in August and September was that victory was imminent, and now… people see, just like previous generations, that this is the struggle of a lifetime,” says Tyrell Haberkorn of the University. of Wisconsin. Even so, through their open criticism of the monarchy, the protesters have already changed Thai society. “This is something no one would have expected,” says Pavin. “The unspeakable has become speakable.” ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Force Without Numbers”