Opinion: The Future of Thai and Myanmar Protesters in Bangkok

Thai and Burmese protesters hold up signs during a protest at Pathumwan Intersection on Feb. 10, 2021.

Beyond the heart-warming images of Thai anti-government demonstrators and Burmese anti-coup protesters in Bangkok demonstrating side by side on Wednesday lie major challenges facing both groups.

While the sight at Pathumwan Intersection gives hope for both respective groups, the struggles may be protracted and difficult.

Let’s start with the Burmese group in Bangkok and Thailand in general first. Although there are an estimated three to four million people from Myanmar in Thailand, most are poor and consumed by the need to work hard to send some remittance back home.

What’s more, they are often treated as second-class citizens. In fact they are not Thai citizens so they are more vulnerable to arrest and harassment, or even possible deportation. Over a thousand have bravely come out to protests against the Myanmar coup in Bangkok over the past week.

I witnessed intimidation by Thai police in front of the Myanmar Embassy on Tuesday. On that evening, only five showed up to hold placards denouncing Burmese coup leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Thai police, both immigration non-immigration police, quickly demanded the demonstrators to produce their ID cards and took photos of the IDs.

Then they were told they have five minutes left to protest but the demonstrators bravely bargained for more time. If this is not an act of intimidation then I do not know what it was. I fear for their security in Thailand. Who knows what kind of visits or official letters they will receive from Thai police after that evening.

And God forbid if their identities leak to the Burmese junta’s side or the embassy as it may affect them and families back in Myanmar.

A male 31-year-old demonstrator by the nickname of KK told me he’s not afraid to take the risk, however. KK came from Kachin state, the northernmost state of Myanmar bordering China. He has spent the past 17 years in Thailand, first as a refugee and after failing to emigrate to the United States, as a migrant worker in Thailand. He’s currently working as a waiter at a restaurant in Bangkok and took a day off to come to protest in front of the embassy.

Earlier on Sunday, when a thousand Burmese demonstrators assembled in front of the United Nations Building in Bangkok in the afternoon, they were eventually chased away by anti-riot police. Seeing them fleeing in fear of being arrested was heart wrenching to me and repeated viewing of the images I captured on video made me ask myself made me feel shame of Thailand and being a Thai.

Things are complicated, however. Now that some rejoice at the news of the US government sanctioning Myanmar coup leaders and associated businesses, a Burmese in Bangkok wrote on Facebook: “Brace yourself, the US sanctions are coming. Why the US haven’t learn anything from the past experiences with the Burmese junta? Sanctions are not effective, citizens will suffer more,” he wrote, adding that this will only make the ties between the Burmese junta and China closer.

Burmese in Thailand who are committed to democracy will have to prepare to fight a protracted struggle and Thai citizens should do what they can to offer shelter and support.

At a Burmese restaurant in Bangkok, Mandalay Food House on Petchaburi Rd, Soi 15, has been doing just that since the coup. Its owner, Sai Lao Mai, has been making news as he offered ‘free’ food for diners in exchange for donations to support the struggle against the Burmese junta.

Meanwhile, fighting the Thai junta is equally complicated. The Thai junta no longer exists by law. What we have is former junta leader Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha who continues to rule as prime minister an elected government and the senate nearly fully selected by him before he relinquished his dictatorial power.

A year after the students launched a struggle against Prayut regime, calling for a new charter and later demanding monarchy reform, 58 have been charged with the crimes of insulting the monarchy. Four of 58 are now under pre-trial detention, including top protest leaders Arnon Nampa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. At least three others charged lese majeste told me earlier this week that they are preparing to accept the same fate of joining Arnon, Parit and Somyot in pre-trial detention soon as well.

But they told me they will fight on.

Fighting on requires an adequate number of people on the streets, however. And while tens of thousands took to the streets in various cities in Myanmar to oppose the Burmese coup leaders, Thais demonstrators in Bangkok on Wednesday could muster no more than 2,000 when they held their first major rally in 2021.

Trying to shore up confidence and maintain morale, protest leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijarawattanakul told the press before calling the end to the rally on Wednesday night that they will mobilize 2 million demonstrators this year. That’s 1,000 times the number of those who showed up on Wednesday. Far-fetch or not we shall see.

Personally I think getting 500,000 people out on the streets would itself be a major achievement and arduous task as many have become jaded to the situations. The general election is supposed to be just two years away, anyway.

None of the 10-point calls for monarchy reforms have been met. Some have become disheartened and confused with various demands and ideologies. A faction of the demonstrators have also become increasingly aggressive after a few clashes with police over the months.

Brief clashes with police are now sporadic and almost common. It happened again on Wednesday night after police briefly detained 10 people, one for spray-painting graffiti calling for the abolition of the lese majeste law, which is one of the 10 demands for monarchy reforms.

It was another graffiti which caught my attention and disturbed me, however. One police pickup truck was vandalized with white spray paints containing messages not just only against the lese majeste.

“Your father is a Laotian,” the racial slur message read. Century-old sense of false cultural superiority as a result of nationalistic education, or indoctrination, dies hard.

Apparently, ethno-chauvinism is still lurking in the dark, even among some who may profess to be fighting for equality and democracy.

I pointed this out Thursday morning on my Twitter and Facebook accounts and some accused me of trying to sabotage the movement while some others unapologetically said it wasn’t a big deal.

Writer’s Note: In the early hour on Friday, the protest group Ratsadon issued a statement expressing regrets about the incident after some local media reported about my photo and the stance I made. The statement by The Ratsadon group was also published on the United Front for Thammasat and Demonstration social media accounts simultaneously. Part of it read: “We sincerely apologise. And insists that the society we’re fighting for, will be the society where all the people are equally treated and well-respected…regardless of social status, gender, and ethnicity.”