As Thailand emerges in fits and starts from nearly one-and-a-half years under pandemic paralysis into a “new normal,” traditional political divisions of geography and class have faded. The impact of COVID-19 in Thailand has magnified governance problems and exacerbated underlying feelings of discontent with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the military-dominated government, and the monarchy.
General dissatisfaction had risen since the 2014 coup that originally brought Prayut to power and the death of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, but the pandemic has made concerns about the country’s governance more existential. Once known for its bitter divide between two political fronts, the populist Red Shirts and nationalist Yellow Shirts, Thailand’s population is more closely united in its opinions of the governing class today than at nearly any time in the past two decades.
The Red and Yellow Shirt schism emerged gradually in the early 2000s, sparked by political outsider Thaksin Shinawatra’s landslide 2001 election win in which he gained over 40 percent of the popular vote. Thaksin’s popularity with rural communities in northern Thailand was massive, but his party faced numerous allegations of corruption and abuses. The controversies surrounding Thaksin directly led to the rise of the Yellow Shirts, a loose coalition composed of middle-class technocrats, ultra-royalists, high-society elite, and members of the military.
The Yellow Shirts organized huge street protests against Thaksin, leading to the 2006 military coup that deposed him as prime minister. Enraged by the removal of their democratically elected leader, Thaksin’s primarily rural and lower-class supporters formed the Red Shirts. Intellectuals and Thais who desired democratic reforms later joined the group. From 2006 onward, however, the Red and Yellow Shirts engaged in opposing and often violent political protests that eventually led to another military coup in 2014.
Demonstrations since 2020 have been unprecedented in size and in the scope of protestors’ demands. Notably, the Red and Yellow shirts are no longer the most relevant civilian political groups. Instead, members from both sides have begun to support a younger generation leading the protests, which is part of the broader pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance movement across Southeast Asia.
Unlike past student movements, the Gen Z-led protests of today have buy-in from a wide swath of the population, and are marked by an “unlikely alliance” between former Red Shirt leaders and some of their Yellow Shirt counterparts. Older generations have joined the young, and many of the once-dutiful royalist elite have sided with the working class to collectively call for the resignation of Prayut and his cabinet.
Red Shirt veterans are more active and visible in the current protests, having long been opposed to the royal and military institutions; notable Prayut critics today include former Red Shirt leaders Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan. A significant number of Yellow Shirts have also shifted their positions, evidenced in the apparent decline of the monarchy’s active supporters. Prominent former royalists who have joined the protest movement include former Yellow Shirts Nititorn Lamlue and Tanat Thanakitamnuay.
Recent polling reflects the breadth of this new coalition: support for Prime Minister Prayut fell from 57 percent in 2018 to 19 percent in September 2021. This newfound solidarity among the opposition can be attributed to three key factors: the administration’s inability to control the spread of COVID-19, economic stagnation during the pandemic, and the public’s increasingly negative perception of the monarchy.
While Prayut’s supporters once viewed his leadership as stabilizing, the pandemic revealed cracks in his rule. In the first year of the pandemic, Thailand was considered an anomaly for its ability to contain the virus, but infections dramatically increased in 2021. Thailand has drawn criticism for its sluggish vaccination rollout which, until recently, lagged behind poorer nations in the region, such as Laos and Cambodia. Of particular concern was the government’s choice to produce AstraZeneca doses locally through Siam Bioscience, a company owned by the king, with no prior experience in developing vaccines. In the face of increasing deaths, even the Yellow Shirts who once supported Prayut’s 2014 coup turned against him in the summer and fall of 2021, leading to public demands for Prayut to resign, as well as a no-confidence vote in parliament. Former Prayut-supporter Tanat Thanakitamnuay credits COVID-19 as giving “more evidence and proof” of the government’s “incompetence.”
Economic stagnation has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the government. Even before 2020, Thailand was languishing economically. Annual growth fell from 5.3 percent in 2006 to less than 3 percent in 2019, slower than many of its neighbors, and the nation’s public debt reached $63 billion. The pandemic has compounded those losses. Tourism, a major source of income, ground to a halt due to the virus, impacting millions of jobs. Thailand’s unemployment rate reached a 12-year high, and GDP fell by over 6 percent, leaving the government’s promises to avoid the “middle-income trap” unfulfilled. Economic hardship has sparked unrest among working class Thais and young protestors united by anger at the military’s poor economic management, which they believe has hindered Thailand’s future potential for greater prosperity.
The pandemic has contributed to the unraveling of the loyalty Thais have traditionally felt toward the monarchy. Critical public perception of the monarchy escalated in 2016 after the death of the revered King Bhumibol and the subsequent ascension of his son, King Vajiralongkorn. While underlying dissatisfaction with the monarchy started long before the pandemic, COVID-19 has magnified what some protestors see as the outdated and authoritarian aspects of the institution. In response to the news that Vajiralongkorn was traveling throughout Europe during the pandemic, Twitter users shared the hashtag #whydoweneedaking? over 1.2 million times in 24 hours.
Accordingly, the number of individuals arrested under lese majeste laws “significantly increased” in 2021, with 100 people, including eight children, charged in the last year alone. Vocal criticisms of the king are still rare, but that may reflect the cultural taboo and extreme legal consequences of criticizing the monarchy more than actual popular opinion. While Thai journalists and commentators themselves are unable to report on the popularity of the monarchy, Australia-based journalist Sebastian Strangio asserts that the king is “widely disliked” in Thailand.
As opposition to the regime and criticism of the monarchy grows across Thailand and unites formerly opposing factions, the United States government will have to pay careful attention to how protests might affect democracy in the country. According to Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, since the military and the palace are unlikely to reform, the dissent and increasing demands of the populace will likely “build up tensions toward confrontation and clash,” which will trigger a more aggressive response by the military-backed government.
Despite the current anti-government protests being the largest in years, the military’s monopoly on power and willingness to curtail civil freedoms indicate that the result of more clashes would likely be a further weakening of democracy in Thailand. More democratic backsliding would strain the United States’ relationship with Thailand, especially given the Biden administration’s focus on expanding democracy and human rights.
This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.