• Q&A

In Thailand, nonviolent discipline is key in surging pro-democracy movement

Government repression has backfired against Thailand’s security forces, fueling a surge in peaceful demonstrations led by women, youth and queer people across the country.
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For weeks, protesters have flooded the streets in Thailand, demanding reforms to the country’s monarchy, a rewrite of the Constitution and the resignation of the Thai Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha. But the military, which has staged over a dozen successful coups in the past century, faces a dilemma. With pro-democracy demonstrators maintaining strict nonviolent discipline, the military’s repressive tactics — including the use of water cannons against peaceful protesters — have backfired, driving more people into the streets.

Pimsiri “Mook” Petchnamrob, a human rights activist from Thailand, has been involved as a supporter in the pro-democracy movement for the past 10 years. Since 2010, she has watched the movement leadership change dramatically — from a small, centralized group of strong male leaders, to the current movement, which is led by a distributed network of young people, queer activists and women. 

From flash mobs to mock fashion runways, Thailand’s pro-democracy movement is employing creative tactics to drive democratic change throughout the country. Identified by the iconic three-finger Hunger Games salute, the movement has drawn in a wide range of citizens throughout the country, from drag queens to food vendors, K-pop fans and motorbike drivers. Although the struggle will be a long one, Petchnarob says, the protesters’ steadfast commitment to nonviolence in the face of police repression and violent counter-protests could undermine the legitimacy of another military takeover if one takes place. I spoke to her about anti-coup resistance, the “backfire effect,” and the future of the movement as Thai police continue to escalate violence against protesters in the street.

It seems like police repression against protesters in Thailand has backfired and made the protests stronger. Is that repression mobilizing more people to take to the streets?

After the first crack down on the early morning of Oct. 15, when they [increased the] state of emergency from moderate to severe and used water cannons against protesters, at least 50,000 people took to the streets. It backfired, and the government realized they had made a mistake by using water cannons and violent force to disperse the protesters. 

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That’s why they lifted the severe state of emergency [a week later] — they knew that they made a mistake. They know that using state security forces will not work in this case, so they’re using other tactics like [supporting counter-protests through] royalist mobilizations. They learned that using force against peaceful protesters is not going to give them a good image, and people will just support the protests even more.

In the United States right now, everyone has been talking about the presidential election and how to resist an attempted coup. But in Thailand, you all have more experience with coups — and resistance to coups — than almost any country in the world. Can you tell us more about the role of the military in the current protests, and how these repeated coups have affected the pro-democracy movement? 

Of course, coups are tough for movement building. After the pro-democracy Future Forward Party was disbanded in February, people were still saying, “Don’t go to the streets or protest, because it will give the military justification to stage another coup. But the protesters proved it wrong. Of course, the military doesn’t have enough justification yet [for a coup] at this point. That’s why the [military] is mobilizing pro-monarchy supporters. They’re expecting to see clashes on the street and people fighting each other, so the military can appear to take the mediator role. 

So when we see something provocative, we walk the other way. The other side is very enthusiastic to use violence against pro-democracy protesters. Their number is smaller, but they know they have the palace and the state backing them up. I think the military is just waiting for that moment to happen, so they can take control.

How has the pro-democracy movement been able to maintain nonviolent discipline?

We know this is the only card we have. Once we start using any violence, or even burn a car, they’re going to use it against protesters. That’s why we have to be super disciplined. Generally the protesters know that once we use any violence, that is what the government and the military want. They are longing to see it, so they can use that as justification for military intervention or the use of stronger force against protesters, not just water cannons. 

Everyone here realizes that this is our condition. Even in Indonesia, they protested for a week, then they burned a lot of cars. They realized the military is not going to stage a coup. With the conditions in Indonesia it’s not possible for a coup to take place, even if there are lootings or other violence during protests. But we know this is our condition. They are ready for this to happen, so I think everyone realizes there’s a line we can’t cross. Of course we are angry, of course we’re upset, but if we lose it right now, we’ll lose it forever.

The last coup in 2014 came with this kind of justification. They said, “Okay, there are Red Shirt [pro-democracy] protesters and Yellow Shirt [pro-monarchy] protesters,” so they said they needed to make an intervention to bring harmony. This time we’re not involved in any kind of violence that may take place. 

Are there a few people who stand out as leaders of the movement, or is leadership more widely distributed? 

There are some leaders — the first ones who started to talk publicly about the role of the monarchy in Thai politics in August — and now they’re being arrested. They were the charismatic characters of the movement. At this point, they’re in jail, so the movement maintains a more leaderless structure in terms of who is organizing protests and mobilizations throughout the country. After the announcement of the state of emergency, pretty much everything was banned, including gatherings of more than five people and the use of sound amplifiers, so it’s better to use this kind of leaderless strategy. If you want to organize something at this or that location, you just post it on the main Facebook page. 

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Right now, those leaders who were brave enough to talk about the monarchy in public are being released, so maybe there would be different forms of organization now. I think the government or police bureau realized that leaderless movements are impossible to control. Protesters can talk nastily about the king and his wife. They might expect that the leaders will cool down the tone of the protests [now that they’ve been released from jail].

In your view, why do so many people still support the monarchy and is the pro-democracy movement reaching out to these people in any way?

There are actually two groups of so-called royalists, or “Yellow Shirts,” who support the monarchy. One is organic — they actually support the monarchy without any forcing or recruitment. Some of them benefit from the existence of the monarchy. They want the monarchy to stay forever because they profit from it. Others have just internalized the strong propaganda, so they actually believe it. But I don’t think this is a huge group. 

The second group is those who are low-rank government officials, like street cleaners and janitors in government offices. They are recruited and forced to join this kind of gathering. If they don’t, it will affect their jobs because it’s easy to check the list of who appears in this kind of mobilization or who is absent. 

[Some of these people are] already with us. On Oct. 14, when they were recruited to join the counter protest wearing yellow shirts, many of them flashed the three finger salute. Some of them took off the yellow shirt and joined the protest later, after they were allowed to leave. They’re already with us, because working-class people know what we are fighting for. Mostly it’s for them. The protest leaders, [some of them] might be upper-middle-class kids, but they want a better society, and working-class people understand this. 

With such widespread support for the movement, including among some of the supposed counter-protesters, do you think things will reach a tipping point in the coming weeks? 

The government is confident that if they can [drag this out] until next year, the protest will lose its momentum. So it seems like it’s going to be a long-term struggle. The government won’t give up easily. They think the movement is just something temporary. Right now, the protests might still be too small to force the prime minister’s resignation, but in March, the government might not have enough money to pay the public servants’ salary any more. So maybe then we’ll see more people from the public sector [joining].

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Are there certain tactics or strategies in other pro-democracy movements that have inspired activists in Thailand?

Of course we learned from the movement in Hong Kong. During the state of civil emergency, we didn’t announce the gathering point ahead of time so the police couldn’t prepare themselves. We just announced it an hour before the gathering time, and when they closed down the public transportation, people still got there by foot. I saw people walk four kilometers to join the protest because the government closed public transportation. That part we learned from Hong Kong. 

This is also a very youth-led movement and a queer-led movement — that’s why it’s so good. The People’s Runway, for example, was a queer-led event, along with actions by Drag Queens Against Dictatorship. It’s good that this movement is not only led by tough, strong, male leaders anymore, it’s a lot of queer people and women. 

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