Plural Partisans: Thailand's People's Democratic Reform Committee Protesters.

AuthorMcCargo, Duncan

Street protests in the heart of Bangkok have been a recurrent feature of Thai politics since the 1950s: notable examples have included the mass student rallies of 1973 and 1976; the anti-Suchinda protests of April and May 1992; (1) anti-Thaksin protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006 and 2008; (2) pro-Thaksin demonstrations by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the Redshirt movement in 2009 and 2010; (3) and most recently, hundreds of student and youth-led anti-government protests staged during 2020. Given the weak institutionalization of party politics in a state characterized by numerous military coups and alarmingly frequent new constitutions, Thailand has often switched from the business-as-usual party mode into the crisis-inflected rally mode. (4) Following the re-election of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2005, rally mode became the new normal. A telecommunications tycoon and former police officer, Thaksin was a profoundly polarizing figure, loved by many Thais and detested by others. (5) He was ousted from power in a military coup on 19 September 2006, (6) an intervention that exacerbated rather than cured the country's complex political problems and divisions. Despite his self-exile since 2008, mainly in Dubai, Thaksin remained a hugely influential figure on the Thai political scene; pro-Thaksin parties convincingly won the December 2007 and July 2011 general elections, and his Pheu Thai Party won the largest number of seats in the March 2019 elections. (7)

Surprisingly, the tenure of Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra (August 2011 to May 2014), as prime minister of Thailand was at first relatively calm and rally-free. Yet during her final months in office, Yingluck faced an aggressive challenge from a range of anti-government groups. Broadly speaking, Thailand's much-vaunted civil society sector had supported the 2006 coup and opposed the Yingluck government. (8) Following a troubling attempt to pass an unpopular amnesty bill in late 2013, Yingluck faced huge street protests that forced her to dissolve parliament in early December. (9) The movement peaked on 13 January 2014, when the anti-Thaksin movement called for a "Bangkok Shutdown", a series of crippling rallies at 11 key locations across the city. (10) At their height in mid-January, the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)-led protests mobilized nearly half a million people; at their nadir, in late April, they probably composed no more than a few thousand. (11) Protesters successfully disrupted parliamentary elections held on 2 February 2014, which were later annulled by the courts. Yingluck limped along as caretaker prime minister for another three months, until she was removed from office by the Constitutional Court in early May. Her administration was then ousted in a military coup later that month.

The whistle-blowing PDRC, formed on 29 November 2013, was a coalition of existing organizations that had long been discontented with Thaksin and his political machine. (12) The PDRC's core was the "Movement against the Thaksin Regime", which mainly comprised supporters of the opposition Democrat Party. (13) In reality, not all of the protest sites were under the control of the PDRC itself. The PDRC proper--a Democrat-aligned movement led by former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban--had six protest sites. (14) Five other locations were controlled by different groups, including the hardline "Students and People's Network for Thai Reform" (SPNTRj, (15) and the "People's Army Against the Thaksin Regime" (PATR), (16) comprising the old Santi Asoke PAD faction known as the Dharma Army, (17) plus the former Pitak Siam group (see Table 1). However, the main focus of activity was at the six primary PDRC sites, which drew much of their support from members of Bangkok's middle class.

At their peak, the main rally sites featured campsites providing accommodation for core protesters, market areas selling a range of t-shirts and other protest paraphernalia and souvenirs, food and beverage stands providing donated refreshments, large stage areas and giant plasma TV screens. Less-known speakers appeared on stage throughout the day, while during the evenings popular entertainers would give free concerts interspersed with vitriolic speeches from Suthep and other prominent movement leaders, who moved between sites.

Initially, the PDRC rallies had a festive atmosphere; the main stages drew large evening crowds, including many people who were attracted as much by the entertainment as by the political messages. Around the edges, the protests had a less savoury character: armed guards, many of them tough guys who had been brought in from the South, provided "protection" for the demonstrations that could extend to random beatings and worse.

However, attendance later declined sharply, especially following a number of fatal attacks on the rallies, apparently carried out by pro-government groups, notably three deaths caused by hand grenades (including two children) at the Ratchaprasong site on 23 February. (18) Major businesses funding the protests became increasingly concerned about the adverse effects on the economy, tourism and investor confidence in Thailand. (19) As support waned, Suthep was forced to close most PDRC rally sites, and retreated to a consolidated protest at Lumpini Park on 28 February. Following Yingluck's removal from office, the PDRC finally withdrew from Lumpini Park on 11 May, joining other protesters at Government House. (20)

This article uses qualitative methods: extensive participant observation, along with semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions carried out with 48 protesters at the rally sites between January and March 2014, concerning their backgrounds, motivations, aspirations and political views. The sample size is too small to provide genuinely representative data, but the broad outlines of what we found echoed survey research conducted by the Asia Foundation. (21) An Asia Foundation survey of 350 protesters conducted on 13-14 January found that 54 per cent were from Bangkok and 46 per cent from outside; of those from the provinces, 37 per cent were from the central region (primarily the five provinces immediately around Bangkok) and 38 per cent from the South. Forty per cent had household incomes above 60,000 baht (US$2,000) per month and another 32 per cent had monthly incomes between 30,000 and 60,000 baht (US$1,000-2,000), high incomes in a Thai context. (22) Our data goes well beyond the Asia Foundation survey in profiling individual protesters and exploring their views on a range of issues.

There were two main groups of protesters: people from Bangkok and adjoining provinces, many of them middle class, who joined the rallies in the evenings; and people from the Upper South, a bedrock of Democrat Party support, many of them with relatively low incomes, who spent extended periods at the protests, often camping onsite for at least a week at a time. Of our 48 informants, 26 were from Bangkok and adjoining provinces, 18 from the Upper South, and four from other areas. Informants were recruited by random sampling at protest sites. Greater Bangkok informants had an average monthly income of around 49,000 baht (US$1,484), while informants from the Upper South had an average income of about 24,000 baht (US$800). (23) Bangkok informants were typically government officials or professionals, while the Southerners were primarily self-employed rubber planters or freelancers. Protesters insisted that they were not supported financially by rally organizers, but many lower-class demonstrators came in groups, receiving assistance from their families or local communities. Free food and water were generally provided at the rally sites for all comers.

A number of useful academic publications have appeared relating to the protests to date. Pavin Chachavalpongpun's edited volume Coup, King, Crisis provides an analytical overview of the period 2014-19. (24) Kanokrat Lertchoosakul has argued that the earlier People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was best understood as "Fifty Shades of Yellow", embracing a range of political views from liberal to arch-conservative. (25) Her 2020 book on the movements demonstrated that like the PAD, the PDRC attracted a wide variety of supporters. (26) By contrast, in an article discussing the origins of the 2014 coup, Chris Baker argues that strikingly few people joined most of the original 2013 protest sites, until numbers were swelled by Southerners specially imported for the purpose of boosting attendance. He observes that, crucially, "the PDRC campaign failed to attract a level of mass support that could undermine the government". (27) Aim Sinpeng notes that to a much greater degree than with the PAD, the PDRC had extremely close connections with both the military and the Democrat Party--in short, its claims to be a grassroots organization were rather weak. (28) Prajak Kongkirati has shown that the PDRC protests illustrated how "civil society" could be decoupled from democratic ideals, instead fuelling dehumanizing hate speech that laid the ground for anti-electoral violence and the subsequent military coup. (29)

Political Motivation of the Protestors

Asked by the Asia Foundation why they were taking part in the protests, participants' top answers were:

  1. To end the Shinawatra family political dynasty (40 per cent).

  2. To protect the monarchy (15 per cent).

  3. To ensure that there will be political reforms before the election (15 per cent).

  4. To prevent the government from pursuing bad policies (15 per cent).

  5. To protect democracy (7 per cent).

  6. To compel Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign (7 per cent).

  7. To ensure that there will be political reforms after the election (4 per cent).

  8. To delay the February 2014 election (1 per cent). (30)

These motives were of three kinds: preventing, protecting, and...

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