By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
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Student protests in Thailand demand democracy

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Issue 2719
A protester on the streets of Bangkok in Thailand
A protester on the streets of Bangkok in Thailand (Pic: Flickr/Prachatai)

Crowds of up to 50,000 pro-democracy protesters gathered around the Democracy Monument in the centre of the capital Bangkok last week.

The protest was organised by a group of mainly young people and university students calling itself the “Free People” organisation.

In the days following this protest, secondary school students up and down the country staged “Three finger salute” protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before start of school.

The three fingered salute was borrowed from Hunger Games, and became a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014.

Videos of school students defying and arguing with their teachers went viral on social media. Often it was young women who were the most militant.

A few days later a group of school students left their classes to protest outside the Ministry of Education because the junta-appointed minister had made threats against them.

As the minister tried in vain to address the students, he was sent packing with shouts of “lackey of the dictatorship!”

The present junta came to power through the 2014 coup.

The “Free People” has three major demands—stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution, and dissolve parliament.

A further set of demands has been raised by some militants in an attempt to reform the discredited monarchy. People are scandalised and fed-up by the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn, who spends his life in Germany.

He has changed the constitution in order to allow this lifestyle and in order to amass even more wealth.

It is the first time in decades that people have had the confidence to criticise the king in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this.

The powerful military has traditionally used the weak monarchy as a tool to justify authoritarian rule. From the platform at a recent rally in the north-east, a leading student activist asked why former king Pumipon had supported military coups.

The reasons why students managed to revive the pro-democracy protests, which have occurred sporadically since 2014, is that this new generation has seen that pushing for reforms within the parliamentary system has not worked.


Opposition parties and politicians have been banned by the military-controlled courts. The junta wrote a new constitution to entrench military rule and held fake elections in early 2019.

The government is blatantly using Covid-19 as an excuse to stop protests. Anyone who speaks out is targeted for intimidation by security officers, and political exiles in neighbouring countries have been murdered by military death squads.

Activists have been charged by police with a number of “offences” for organising protests.

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The economy is a mess and youth see little to be hopeful for the future. Over half the adult population voted against the military party in 2019 and share the youth’s feelings of anger and frustration.

The difference is that the youth do not share the fear which is common among older activists who have been through brutal military crack-downs. The students, especially those still at school are also fed up with the backward and conservative education system.

It is not just students who are protesting. LGBT+ and pro-choice activists have also joined in, along with activists campaigning for self-determination in the Muslim Malay region of Patani.

Older pro-democracy Red Shirt activists have also taken part for the first time since the movement was brutally suppressed in 2010.

Lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests show that what is needed urgently is to expand the movement into the organised working class.

There are some hopeful signs. A small but militant union-led rally was held in Bangkok and some workers attended a student rally in Ayuttaya. The lack of a significant organisation of the left will make the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this.

As with the struggles in other countries like Sudan and Lebanon, activists will have to be wary of those proposing small “reforms” in order to maintain the status quo.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist in exile in the UK. Visit his blog at



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