What We Can Expect With the Return of Political Protests

Pro-democracy supporters light candles or shine their mobile phone lights during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Political protests have resumed over the past few weeks despite unprecedented upsurge in the number of COVID-19 daily deaths and infections. Friday saw over 21,000 new daily infections and 191 deaths.

All protesters want Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign for the COVID-19 management meltdown. But some also want to pursue their year-long goal of monarchy reform if not more.

Leading the first group is veteran political activist Sombat Boonngam-anong who devised the “car mob” protests last month in order to minimize possible COVID-19 infections while making their anti-Prayut presence known on the streets. Sombat told me last week that it’s imperative that Prayut leave now to prevent further COVID-19 public health disaster and economic ruins despite the fact that there’s no viable or even visible replacement that could assure the public that whoever replaces Prayut will be more competent. Sombat’s rationale, shared by quite a few, is that you cannot possibly get a dumber leader than Prayut even if you try.

Then there’s the second group of political protesters which is more diverse. On one hand you have monarchy-reform activist Arnon Nampa, who gave a rousing speech on Tuesday marking the first year since the issue of monarchy reform was raised in public by no less than himself a year ago on Aug 3, 2020. Arnon himself is more willing to take risks and unlike Sombat who told me he’s “afraid of COVID-19,” Arnon wrote on his Facebook over a month ago that if you end up getting infected by COVID-19 for joining political protests, so be it.

Motorists assembling Aug. 1, 2021 at Victory Monument to call for Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign over COVID-19 mismanagement.

Two tangible outcomes over the past 12 months of calls for monarchy reforms are: over a hundred people, including Arnon, have been charged with lese-majeste and social media have become bold in discussing negative aspects of the monarchy, real or imagined, particularly on Twitter.

By comparison, Arnon, who warns about growing republicanism sentiment if the monarchy institution fails to reform, is not militant compared to another group, Free Youth.

Free Youth is back and called for a march from Democracy Monument to the Grand Palace this afternoon (Saturday) at 2pm. Marching, or trying to march, to the Grand Palace is highly controversial – at least to die hard royalists and ultra-royalists.

Police are more willing to use force and they’ve warned on Friday that they will take all necessary measures to prevent the protesters from getting close to the Grand Palace.

When protesters tried to march there back in February, they were blocked at Sanam Luang and police violently dispersed the demonstrators. My most watched video clip, 3.7 million views, was captured on that night after riot police managed to cordon off most reporters and cameraman. I was “fortunate” to see what the police didn’t want others to see. What I saw of an ugly beating of a lone protester by around ten police officers by baton. It was savage and that’s why it was retweeted on Twitter by others over 910,000 times.

Wearing Gryffindor robes, human rights lawyer and activist Arnon Nampha speaks to monarchy reform demonstrators Aug. 3, 2021 at Pathum Wan Intersection at a Harry Potter-themed protest.

A key member of the group, “Uaw Free Youth” wrote a defense on why protesters have to march to the palace. Uaw said it’s because Thailand’s only COVID-19 vaccine factory, Siam Bioscience, is owned by the crown and the factory has failed to produced the amount of vaccine originally anticipated, leading to a delay of inoculation programme. “We cannot wait,” Uaw wrote on Friday.

Now, not only ultra-royalists and police have become incinerated by today’s planned protest, a leading ultra-royalist has even accused Free Youth of willifully wanting to spread coronavirus by calling for the demonstration.

Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of Thai Phakdee Party, wrote on Thursday that today’s demonstrators are using “biological weapons – which is spreading COVID-19 because their assessment was that at their age, if they become infected they won’t develop severe symptoms [because they are young] but they seek to spread [the virus farther] and use it as a pretext to undermine the government and the monarchy.”

Make it what you will but Free Youth on the same day instructed the demonstrators through its social media to also carry with them rotten eggs and fermented fish gravy (pla rah) in a sign that things will at least turn smelly if not ugly and violent.

More mainstream activists like former redshirt leader Nattawut Saigua said he will not join Free Youth’s protest march this afternoon but will join the “car mob” on Sunday instead. This is a sign that even some protest leaders are still uncomfortable touching the monarchy issue and just want to kick Prayut out.

Free Youth seems to want to let off some adrenalin but beyond that, their biggest challenge is not battling with anti-riot police but to win more hearts and minds to support their political agenda.

With COVID-19 ravaging Thailand and potential spread of virus at the protest site, their timing is far from ideal.