The youth movement shaking Thailand now is remarkable for its ability to manifest itself seemingly everywhere and at the same time. Guest contributor Eli Elinoff explores what such a phenomenon means for democracy in Thailand.
By Eli Elinoff Guest Contributor
Historically, Thai protests have followed Thai geographies of power: They tend to be understood as center-focused, located in Bangkok, emphasizing geographies that are near to the country’s focal points of political, economic, and cosmological power. In the past, this has meant that spaces like Thammasat University, Lumpini Park, Sanam Luang, Rattanakosin island, Government House, and, in 2010, the Ratchaprasong area, became the central stage for moments of rupture and transformation.
By taking over these central spaces, protests—both democratic and otherwise—generated material and symbolic force for their political claims by disrupting key government functions or urban life more generally. They also made themselves visible to the public and those who hold power within the country.
Over the last months (and especially the last week), however, a sense of something different has been coming into view. Once protestors were moved from the country’s standard protest geographies, flash mobs inaugurated new spaces of political insurrection: Thousands of peaceful protestors filled the street at Ha Yaek Lad Phrao, Bang Na, Wong Wien Yai, Yaek Kaset, and Ramkhamhaeng University. These protests extended large crowds that gathered multiple days in a row at Khon Kaen University, Chiang Mai University, Ubon University, and in Udon Thani city. These protests in large provincial cities were accompanied by events in smaller regional centers like Amnat Charoen, Sakon Nakhon, Uttaradit, Kalasin, and Yala.
Of course, some of these geographies have been tactical: as the police and military have shut off central sites of protest like Sanam Luang or Ratchaprasong, edgier parts of Bangkok have been left open and accessible.
But, even prior to the police crackdown, the geographies of these protests have been different.
When the current round of student protests kicked off, there was, of course, a focus on the usual institutions. For example, student leaders from Thammasat shaped the protests’ unique demands in ways that seemed to suggest continuity with longer histories of student activism at elite institutions sitting at the vanguard of various political transformations.
However, alongside the protests emerging from these more typical sites have been others at trade schools, provincial universities and colleges, the Rajabhat university campuses, and a range of secondary schools. Beginning in February, student protests were held at more than fifteen different universities across the country, including many trade and technical schools. In the last weeks of July, when protests resumed, events were held across twenty different provinces. By October, that number jumped to sixty two different provinces.
The near simultaneous emergence and relative equal importance of these widespread sites of dissent indicates something particularly interesting about these protests.
For example, the prevalence of events at the typically conservative Rajabhat campuses is notable. The Rajabhat system was previously composed of teacher’s colleges that were elevated in 2005 to become universities to expand access to higher education. Although Thailand’s traditional universities still dominate in terms of both social and educational prestige, the Rajabhat campuses, like Britain’s polytechnics or the US system of community college have grown by attracting rural students and working class students.
As former teacher’s colleges, they are generally quite conservative, extending the nationalist educational curriculum. At the same time, their open enrollment and widespread geographic distribution situates these campuses as important generators of educational opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
That students at these campuses began protesting from the movement’s earliest days suggests the wide reach and distribution of dissatisfaction being articulated by Thailand’s young people. In these spaces, just as in the more typical sites of political mobilization, the experience of foreshortened aspirations, narrowly nationalist educational curriculum, and the generally stultifying effects of life under military dictatorship resonated deeply.
Provincial cities like Khon Kaen also hosted a series of large events beginning last February and resuming after the COVID-19 lockdown was loosened. The Khon Kaen demonstrations, from their inception, drew crowds of students and locals. As events shifted from the university towards the city itself, they offered a platform for a variety of political speakers including members of other pro-poor movements across Isaan who linked their claims to those being made by the student protestors. In this way, Khon Kaen’s protests were not just geographically different from the demonstrations in Bangkok, but inclusive of the region’s specific political actors.
Even though protests in the provinces have been both essential and commonplace in Thai politics for the last 50 years, provincial protests have been generally understood as sub-mobilizations of something larger taking place in Bangkok. Sometimes, as in the case of the 2010 Red Shirt mobilization, provincial demonstrations produced revelatory disruptions that emphasized both the changing regional topographies of Thai politics, but also the shifting depth of feeling in those places. The burning of provincial halls, the occupation of provincial media broadcast centers, and the disruption of flows of movement on road and rail were hallmarks of the late stages of the 2010 protests.
My point, then, is not that provincial discontent is new (though it is often ignored, downplayed, or under-analyzed). Nor is it new that this movement is a cross-class alliance. Finally, it is not that the clogging of infrastructural arteries is a new tactic. There are strong precedents for all of these things. Rather, what strikes me as different is the relatively flat hierarchy of these spaces of dissent, their inclusive character, and their temporal simultaneity.
To put it simply: Thailand’s dissent is now occurring everywhere, all at once.
We might even go further, given the critical importance of the internet in these protests, to say that the protests are, in fact, occurring all the time (See Aim Simpeng’s “Twitter Analysis of the Thai Free Youth Protests”).
The “everywhere, all at once” philosophy undergirding this movement reflects, in some senses, its politics. Previous eras of democratic protest maintained ambiguous links with political parties and politicians. They were, therefore, erroneously, but inextricably, tied to those political actors. The current movements suggest that the legacy of earlier protests has not been a deepening of party attachments but the de-linking of democratic aspirations from political parties and specific political figures. Perhaps these parties retain their relevance more broadly, but they are not the focal point of these protests. Instead, the new movement has coalesced around democratic sentiment itself. Such sentiment it seems has penetrated deeper and more expansively into the national imaginary than the military government imagined.
The earliest theories of democracy emphasize that as a political system, democracy is mobilized by people who have no moral, economic, or kinship claim to rule. Perhaps this is a counter-intuitive way of thinking about democracy, but it is one that resonates with the kinds of anxieties produced by the hierarchies currently unraveling in Thailand.
Lacking the bloodlines of the well-born aristocracy, the money of oligarchs, or the moral claims of phudi (good people), the demos of democracy is composed of everyone, irrespective of their status. In this sense, it is made of leftover “people ” whose political legitimacy emerges from their simple membership in a commonly held community.
Democratic politics are therefore not only animated by the institutions of the high born, the salons of aristocrats, the money of the wealthy, or the universities of the educated elite. Instead, they emerge from the barbershop, the nail salon, the bar, in poor neighborhoods, outside 7-11, in the market, rice fields, win motosai, or in taxi cabs. Democratic debate is taken up at technical schools and vocational training centers. Hair stylists, baristas, social media influencers, Grab drivers, daily workers, scavengers, and, yes, students all compose the demos. Democratic politics are composed by everyone, everywhere, all at once.
Whether by design or happenstance (or both), Thailand’s current pro-democracy movements are enacting precisely this principle. By taking over city shrines, technical schools, elite universities, train stations, and peripheral intersections in cities and towns across the country at the sametime, without regard for their relative centrality or symbolic importance, these movements might represent the most vivid enactments of democratic possibility in Thailand’s history.
Eli Elinoff is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. His research explores the relationship between urban environmental change and political transformation in Thailand. His research has been published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Anthropological Theory, South East Asia Research, and City, among others. His manuscript, Citizen Designs: City-Making and Democracy in Northeastern Thailand, will be published by University of Hawaii Press in 2021.
Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team or any of its partner organizations.