Opinion: Protests in Hong Kong, Empty Streets in Bangkok

Protesters march on the streets against an extradition bill in Hong Kong on Sunday, June 16, 2019. Photo:Vincent Yu / AP
Protesters march on the streets against an extradition bill in Hong Kong on Sunday, June 16, 2019. Photo:Vincent Yu / AP

As an estimated 1 million protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets this week to prevent China from compromising their judicial system, I was prompted to reflect on the role of street protests in democracy.

As a Thai, I can only wish them well. Another neighbor being pulled into China’s dictatorial orbit would bode ill for Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, which is just south of Hong Kong.

In Thailand, the past decade and a half has seen disruptive street protests from all sides, often involving deaths and injuries. In 2014, the junta cited unrest as the main justification for staging a coup.

But after the weeks immediately following the May 2014 coup, street protests of more than 10,000 demonstrators ceased to take place. There simply has been no stomach for large-scale street protests over the past five years. Conservatives have almost entirely discredited the mere idea of staging a protest, blaming mass mobilization for much that is wrong with Thai society.

In the aftermath of the March 24 general election, even some anti-junta protest leaders are rethinking the usefulness of protest.

“Protests have been made into something scary. The National Council for Peace and Order has succeeded. Today, holding street protests is not the answer,” Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, a prominent pro-democracy activist, told me earlier this month.

But others, like young student-activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, believe the election – no matter how fraudulent – has signalled a transition to less repressive conditions that mark the ideal time to return to the streets.

Yet even if Netiwit is correct, judging from the low turnout at street protests in Bangkok over the past five years, Thailand is likely to see street protests diminish, in terms of both frequency and size.

Reckless and irresponsible protest leaders on both sides in the years before the 2014 coup are partly to blame for the currently low participation. Protest leaders on both sides put ordinary protesters at harm by invading government compounds, such as when Yellowshirts took over Government House or when they shut down Suvarnabhumi Airport. In the end, the vast majority of those killed and imprisoned were ordinary protesters.

Most of those ordinary protesters who lost their lives in the years before the coup have never been afforded justice. The mother of a slain nurse volunteer in 2010 has been calling for justice with little or no help from Redshirt leaders for nearly a decade now. These deaths, where no one is held accountable, leads to the notion of “tai free” or “free death”. Virtually no one has paid a price for killing protesters on the streets of Bangkok.

It’s no surprise that a good chunk of the new generation of young and politically aware citizens have expressed reticence about mobilizing on the streets, despite being politically active on social media. They argue that organizing the masses to rally is not only risky given some protest leaders have been assaulted over the past year, but would likely set the pretext for yet another coup d’etat.

Now that an opposition has emerged in parliament after the election, many are of the opinion that their elected representatives should be the ones to take junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s regime to task, while the streets and roads should be left to cars and pedestrians. Many young netizens would rather tweet against Prayuth and the military in the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms than bear the heat and the risks of prosecution that are involved in being on the streets.

While rights to demonstration are fundamental to a democratic society, as seen in Hong Kong this week, Thais now seem keen to see other avenues for political action used up first. Massive street protests will only return to Bangkok when all other channels for political action have been exhausted.