It’s an undeniable fact that recently, the number of monarchy-reform, anti-government demonstrators have dropped significantly compared with last year.
Since the protesters returned to the streets earlier this year, the number seems never to exceed 3,000 people max. On Tuesday, a day after three protest leaders were indicted for royal defamation and denied bail, the crowd of black-clad demonstrators in front of the Criminal Court in Bangkok was no more than 300.
Yes, no more than 300. I did not miss one or two digits.
While the reasons for this is debatable, I believe a combination of factors were responsible for the repeated low turnout compared to tens of thousands that showed up repeatedly last year.
First and the most obvious is the ongoing spread of coronavirus and its devastating impact on the Thai economy. Put simply, it has become more taxing for the demonstrators, mostly university students and still dependent on their parents financially, to come out and protest every week or even more frequently than that.
The second factor is fear. With eight protest leaders now in pre-trial detention for lese-majeste charges and 57 more awaiting for decision by the prosecutors in the near future, the chance of them spending at least a few years in prison is real. Some key protesters are facing either lese-majeste charges or sedition, while those who remain free are now checking the prospect of seeking political asylum abroad.
Lese majeste fugitive Nuttigar Woratunyawit, who fled Thailand in 2017, confirmed to me on the phone from the U.S. last week after she managed to gain political asylum status that she was asked by some about how to flee the kingdom.
She warned young Thai activists that “fleeing for asylum isn’t traveling for sightseeing or studying abroad. It’s leaving the country that you were born in, and once you get out, you can never go back. It’s a one-way ticket.”
This is a tough decision and each political activist now facing charges will have to make. The lese-majeste law carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years per count while it’s 7 for sedition.
No one can be in Thai prison, notorious for its low sanitary conditions and congestion, on behalf of another. But to flee means to try to start a new life abroad as a second-class citizen, if not third-class, on a foreign soil. This includes having to learn a new language and adapt to a new environment.
Third factor is infighting. I have lost count who is blocking others on Facebook due to their moderate political differences. For example, some people look down on others who are not calling for an outright abolition of the lese-majeste law as not brave or unenlightened. Debate about non-violent struggle and its merits is also raging, with others casting doubt on the merits of both violence and peaceful struggle.
As if that wasn’t enough, the fifth factor is doubts within the movement, and that some mole may have been planted within the inner circle. As I type these words, there have been incriminations and counter-incriminations made to the point where confusion and distrust reign. Public donations to various groups that have never been made transparent have also led to allegations of possible fraud.
Those refusing to reveal the total donation amount received argue that donors never had any problem with the how the money was spent so there’s no need to declare. Some even argue that to declare the finances in detail would put donors at risk. Then there are some who believe that at least a figure related to the alleged donation fraud may in fact be a mole sent by the state.
Next is the hardline tactics adopted by some protesters including the burning of the images of the king in public as occurred last Saturday night in front of the Criminal Court. This could potentially alienate those who may merely want monarchy reform instead of a Republic of Thailand. In fact, within the movement, the republican strand versus those merely want monarchy reforms are becoming too visible to ignore.
If all these were not enough, then there’s fatigue and a sense of hopelessness by some. They feel that after a year, despite the level of criticisms against the monarchy pushed through the political glass ceiling, some of those pushing it are under pre-trial detention, one after the other.
They have to try to come out of their echo chamber, seriously reflect, and not lose hope, however.