Opinion & Analysis

'Flash Mob': Youth politics in Thailand

Could Thai youth topple a regime with flash mobs? Purawich Watanasukh looks at the dissolution of the popular opposition Future Forward Party and how it triggered nationwide protests from younger generations. 

On February 21, Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP) after a 191 million Thai Baht loan (NZ$9.5 million) loan it took from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was ruled illegal.

Under electoral rules, donations are limited to 10 million Thai Baht (NZ$ 505,000) per year.

All 16 party executives, including Thanathorn, were banned from politics and from forming a new party for 10 years.

FFP was founded in March 2018. It branded itself as anti-junta and an electoral ‘alternative’ to drag the country out of political turmoil that has lasted more than a decade.

1280px Thanathorn JuangroongruangkitFuture Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The party was hugely popular among young voters due to Thanathorn’s charismatic leadership and visionary thinking.

Its progressive campaign aiming to return Thailand to democracy also drew support, as did parts of its platform including military reform, an amendment to the military-drafted 2017 Constitution, open government, and decentralisation.

FFP beat the odds in the March 2019 election, taking 81 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.

It received 6.3 million votes and became the third largest party in the lower house, despite contesting in an election for the first time.

FFP’s success went beyond expectations, but for many Thai voters it was understandable.

To some, FFP was seen as ‘a new hope’ after five years of frustration under a military regime, and a decade of ‘coloured politics’ that has divided the country into the Yellow and Red Shirts.

However, to others the FFP agenda posed a direct threat to the establishment, and in particular to the military, which has been a key political actor since 1932.

FFP’s political journey has been rocky since its first day. Soon after the 2019 election, FFP’s key figures faced about 25 charges - charges they believed to be politically motivated.

Three cases have been ruled on so far. The first was in November 2019, when leader Thanathorn was disqualified as an MP by the Constitutional Court, after it ruled he had failed to transfer his shares in a defunct magazine company by the election registration date.

The second case was in January 2020, when the Constitutional Court acquitted the FFP on charges that it had attempted to overthrow the democratic regime with the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn as head of state.

The third case was decided in February 2020, when the Constitutional Court dissolved the FFP and implemented a decade-long ban from politics for party executives.  

Most of the FFP lawmakers will retain their seats and can form a new party, but the ban on its leaders will lessen the opposition’s influence in the Thai parliament, and disenfranchise millions of Thais who voted for FFP.

Immediately following the court’s ruling, a ‘flash mob’ showed up in Thai universities, to express discontent on the FFP’s dissolution.

The ‘flash mob’ idea soon spread across the country, with students and other young people occupying universities and schools.

Over a fortnight, the students in at least 30 universities and schools held ‘flash mobs’, and it quickly become a popular trend on social media. Some universities reportedly had more than a thousand students joining rallies.

A message of frustration, grievance, and anger has been expressed through banners and protest: "respect our votes", "RIP Democracy", "I was betrayed by the system", "F" stands for freedom, fairness and future in Thailand", "A state for one is no state at all", "the sovereign power belongs to the people".

These messages reflect what the new generation of Thais think the country should be.

Will Thai youth resistance be successful in toppling the regime? Maybe not, but it is noteworthy to see that political struggle in Thailand is no longer just pro-Thaksin or against Thaksin, pro-military or against military, but now it is also a generational conflict with a strong youth focus.

The dissolution of the FFP is just the spark that triggered the youth to come out.

The message expressed by students reflects what they witnessed over the past five years, including injustice, inequality, and a lack of freedom of expression.

More importantly, it is a message that reflects a principle of self-determination: that Thai youths are demanding they have a say in Thailand’s future.

In the coming months we will see how autocratic the government response will be, and just how a new youth-oriented protest movement finds its voice.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

- Asia Media Centre