Post-election political stalemate, the specter of the junta leader returning as prime minister, witch hunts against new party leaders – what’s there to be hopeful about in Thailand?
Hope is what keeps us alive and not all is lost after the March 24 general elections.
Three factors in particular suggest that not all is lost even in Juntaland.
First is the rise of youth and first-time voters. Second is the growth of social media as a new public sphere. Third is the transactional relationship between some voters and political parties.
Let us start with the 6.2 million voters who voted for the anti-junta Future Forward Party. While it’s unclear how many were first-time voters, party leader Thanathorn Juangrungruangkit is hugely popular on social media, with hashtags related to him and the party often topping Thai Twitter’s trending topics. As of this week, Thanathorn (who before entering politics was a board member of Matichon Group, the mother company of Khaosod English) has over 322,000 followers on his @Thanathorn_FWP twitter account.
The bulk of anti-junta activists active since the May 2014 coup have also been youth.
Since the contentious elections, university students from 14 institutions have spearheaded a campaign to impeach the Election Commission, which they perceive as unprofessional if not partial. Collectively, nearly a million signatures have been gathered. The campaign speaks volumes about the growing political awareness of young people. They want change and have had enough of growing up under military dictatorship. Their activism alone is a reason to be hopeful and optimistic about the future of Thailand.
Next is the rise of social media as a new public sphere for political deliberation. No one can vouch for its rise and dominance better than army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, who on Tuesday told reporters that social media has become more “powerful” and effective than the weapons possessed by the armed forces. Translated into English: the junta and ultra-conservative establishment have lost control over its narrative. They can no longer count on state-controlled or mainstream mass media to be docile gatekeepers of news and information, and to implant the public with the ‘right’ views.
Over the past few years, social media has superseded all other media as a space for accessing news and exchanging views with the least censorship and self-censorship.
The powers that be have accused the young and not so young of being brainwashed on social media but the reality is that Thai people are learning to decide for themselves what is true and false, right and wrong. The night before polling, the top-trending Twitter hashtag #iamgrownupandcandecidebymyself was evidence that netizens are no longer willing to subscribe to a narrative handed to them by those in power.
With smartphones becoming cheaper, faster and more accessible, one can only expect online communication, learning and deliberation to grow. Short of dragging Thailand back to a pre-digital era, maintaining hegemony over the grand narrative of Thai politics has become increasingly untenable.
Last but not least is the transactional nature of some voters. This was best demonstrated by the mass exodus of votes in Bangkok from the Democrat Party to the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party as well as, to some extent, Future Forward Party.
Parties can no longer count on even formerly loyal voters if they do not deliver the goods. The goods for those who voted for Phalang Pracharat may, for now, be the continuation of a conservative government and the rule of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the party’s PM candidate. But the transactional nature of that support means these voters cannot be expected not to change. To this writer, this is also a reason to be hopeful about the future of Thailand.
It’s been less than nine decades since the revolt which ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy in 1932. The democratic experiment in Thailand remains nascent, on-going and far from over. Yet some gains have been made despite repeated attempts by those in power to maintain a dictatorship and a semi-feudal society. The continuation of resistance, on elections day and beyond, is still an undeniable source of hope for Thailand.