Schoolgirls Emerge as Leaders of Leaderless Protests in Bangkok

A protester shines a flashlight for two students working on their school assignments while attending the anti-government rally at Kaset Intersection on Oct. 19, 2020.

BANGKOK — Young protesters, many of them women and high school students, briefly took over parts of Bangkok on Monday and over the weekend to demand the government’s resignation, despite police threats to prosecute them

As much as 70 percent of the demonstrators who occupied Kaset Intersection in northern Bangkok on Monday were women, Khaosod English correspondents at the scene observed. With the declaration “everyone is a leader,” they are forging a new movement amid the police crackdown that put nearly every prominent activist behind bars. 

“The government’s violence makes people wake up,” A 17-year-old girl from Horwang School said. “The people fighting here are fighting for all of us. The government’s use of violence makes them even worse in our eyes.” 

The Matthayom 6 student said this was her “tenth time” attending a protest and that she was not afraid of defying the emergency decree, which bans public gatherings of more than five people.

“If there are enough of us, they [the government] can’t do anything,” she said. “We’re students. I’m wearing my uniform because at the last mob, people are kinder to me if they see we are the country’s future.”

Schoolgirls hold up “liberte, egalite, fraternite” signs at the Kaset Intersection protest on Oct. 19, 2020.

Jaded Chaowilai, a women’s welfare advocate who campaigns against rapes and domestic violence, was present at the Kaset Intersection rally on Monday. He said young women have the most incentive to protest due to Thailand’s male-dominated society and social pressures. 

“Most of the movement are women, students, young women because of gender-related problems at family and school. They want to speak out and join because there’s so many problems,” Jaded said. “On Facebook Live, I saw a 8 or 9-year-old girl talking about gender issues and problems at her school.” 

The protests – which are calling for the prime minister’s resignation, a more democratic constitution, and a reformed monarchy – have become leaderless “pop-up” gatherings. Monday’s protests took place at Kaset Intersection near Kasetsart University, Khlong Prem Prison, and MRT Ministry of Public Health Station. 

Student protesters at the Kaset Intersection protest on Oct. 19, 2020.

The flash mobs tactics were adopted after many protest leaders and activists have systematically been arrested over the past week, though 19 of them were granted bail and released Monday night. 

Monday also saw protests in Buriram, Maha Sarakham, Ubon Ratchathani, and Chiang Mai.

“Everyone can be a leader,” a volunteer female guard said at the rally. “The protests are managing without a leader, and everyone who wants to say something can take turns talking through megaphones.”

Students at the anti-government protest in Nonthaburi on Oct. 19, 2020.

The government appears to be struggling to catch up with the fluid and leaderless nature of the protests. The Cold War-era mentality of suppressing dissent can be seen in their response to the movement, from arresting the activist leaders, threatening to prosecute anyone who shared photos of the protests online, and trying to ban the Telegram app used by the demonstrators to communicate. 

But if the government hoped those harsh reactions would “decapitate” the movement into collapsing, they could not be more wrong. Protests have become organic and almost spontaneous; locations are announced on social media only a few hours prior, and the venues spread out across the city instead of converging on one area. 

“We are all protest leaders,” reads a sign held by a protester on Oct. 19, 2020 at Kaset Intersection.

Creativity of the younger generations also took the stage. About 3 million baht was raised by Thai K-pop fans on Twitter – a largely female base. 

They are not afraid of touching on the country’s most powerful institution and therefore the most sensitive subject, either. In recent days, many schoolchildren held up signs and shouted slogans calling for reforms of the monarchy.

“Some people disagree with reforming the monarchy but only agree with reforming the government,” the 17-year-old student at Kaset Intersection protest said. “But young people these days are able to think for themselves and are not brainwashed.”

She added, “We are not radical. We are just brave enough to think.” 

Related stories:

Ideological Clashes Split Families as Protests Heat Up