Last Sunday a crowd of mostly young people filled Bangkok’s “main street” at the Democracy Monument. Reports at night when the crowd was at its peak counted at least 25,000. It was the largest gathering since the 2014 military coup displaced a freely elected government. Everybody held their breath. The history of large gatherings at that site by young people has been bloody. The event went ahead and then concluded without major incident. Everybody still held their breath. Aftermaths of past rallies have led to arrests. But it now is beginning to seem that something basic is different this time.
On Monday, in schoolyards as the national anthem was played during “opening exercises” (as we used to call them) students raised the 3-finger salute representing “revolt” in the “Hunger Games” films, which has been adopted as the protest signal by the young. A few years ago kids were arrested for doing that. It was different this time.
Before 2014 there were two huge factions in Thailand, one wearing red shirts and one wearing yellow shirts. The red shirts were supporting the populist movement of “the people” who elected large majorities in the Thai Parliament three times – they were unstoppable. The yellow shirts were called “royalists” but they were mostly metropolitan business people and the urban elite. The young people at rallies these days wear white shirts; if they want to show their loyalty it’s to “none of you who got us into this mess.” White shirts, white bows, the young folks are creating their own insignia as they arise.
There are, naturally, a plethora of suggestions on the internet about what’s behind the unprecedented restraint being shown by those with guns and uniforms, large prison trucks, and water cannons (being kept well back on side streets). Some say members of the royal family have ordered and advocated letting the young people speak, even if the things they say are strictly illegal. Others say there must be “something going on” among the ultra-elite, because they surely still run things.
Nobody knows where this is going to end.
The young people have arisen to demand constitutional reforms back to the levels provided by previous constitutions (the present one is the twelfth since the democratic revolution of 1932 which replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is also “under the law.”) The speakers and singers at this spate of rallies, of which the one on Sunday was the latest and largest, were openly advocating reductions in powers being taken by the monarch as well as the government. Even vague suggestions like that a little while ago would have been quickly smashed. The fist may still strike, but it has not done so yet.
Even if there is a retaliation as the elite fear losing control, the arising of the young people with their undisguised unhappiness about the way things are being done at the highest levels is now a historic precedent. This, above all, has caught the attention and ignited the imaginations of people all over the country and even out here in our end of the valley tucked between the mountains.
When it comes to a showdown between the power of the people and the power of authoritarianism, in the end the people will find “the odds are always with you.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.