Call it the last straw, the turning point, or the butterfly effect – a new generation of young Thais are now awakened.
From Bangkok to the far north of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, to the south in Surat Thani and in the northeast in Maha Sarakham, students everywhere are protesting for democracy on a scale not seen since the May 1992 uprising.
They are demanding that former junta-leader-turned-elected-premier Gen Prayut Chan-ocha resigns and calling for better protection of civil rights and democracy in Thailand, among other demands. .
The Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve opposition Future Forward Party and ban its executives from politics for 10 years was arguably just another straw piling up on the back of the youth.
These youngsters who came out to protest are around 15 to 22. They grew up under the military dictatorship of Gen Prayut after the May 2014 coup.
They saw political repression, jailing, and even ‘unsolved’ murders of those who disagree with the regime and particularly the monarchy. They heard Prayut through his song played repeatedly asking for just a little more time in power, only to end up seeing Prayut still in power, albeit elected.
They saw the current constitution drafted by men chosen by people who were in turn chosen by Prayut himself. They saw those publicly oppose the junta arrested and charged right to the days leading up to what the regime called a “referendum” on the charter.
They grew up seeing people getting arrested, one after another, for expressing critical views about the monarchy on their communication channel of choice – Twitter and Facebook. The latest case, coming just a few days before the Future Forward Party was dissolved, was a 20-year-old student with over 100,000 followers.
Over the years as they grow up, they saw the attempts to reintroduce anachronistic and moralistic yet hypocritical norms which say the young should behave one way, while those at the top can do whatever they want, moral or immoral.
They also grew up seeing the Thai economy increasingly resembling the sick man of the Asean region, with last year’s GDP growth lowest among the 10-nation member states. This year’s GDP growth is expected to be even lower than last, under 2 percent, if not worse.
So when they saw a party hugely popular among young voters riding a banner of change, with six million plus votes, got dissolved last week and leaders banned from politics simply because its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit lent the party a loan worth 191 million baht, of course they would not stand idly by any longer.
And yet, this is not really about Thanathorn or Future Forward anymore, but about their own future and what kind of society these young Thais want to inherit.
As I observe rallies at three campus locations from Tuesday to Thursday, very little was said about Thanathorn and the party. And the now disbanded party symbol is almost completely absent.
Young Thais I talked to said they want a real and not fake democracy. They want a progressive, democratic, and participatory charter. And they want a better economy.
Imagine yourself studying at university and soon to graduate. Then look at the shamble that is the Thai economy, deflation, inflated property prices due to years of speculation by not just rich Thai but Chinese investors. And think about the news of imminent layoff in various sectors.
These are what young Thais are facing. Three interviewers told me the economy was a major concern for them. They say their middle-class parents are struggling. One, a Silpakorn University student, told me on Wednesday that her retired parents still have to work hard in order to try to put enough food on the table.
Another student, this time at Ramkhamhaeng University, told me on Thursday during the protest that she expected the economy to be fixed by the Prayut, just like she expects a car to be fixed if sent to a garage, yet he failed at his job.
This is their conscience now: collectively seeing themselves as holders of sovereign power and not subservient citizens under the regime’s leash. This is a threat to the conservative establishment, and on Thursday the authorities issued warnings about some critical messages written about the monarchy at campus rally sites.
But this is a generation that grew up with witty and sarcastic Twitter hashtags critical of the monarchy that repeatedly top the trends, sometimes with over a million mentioned. And now they are showing themselves in flesh and blood.
How can the regime ever hope to put the genie back in the lamp now?