Anti-government “flash mobs” have spread across Thailand as the country staggers forward in the initial stages of COVID-19 recovery.
The number of rallies has increased in the kingdom, with more than 40 anti-government protests organized on short notice since a massive demonstration was held in Bangkok on July 18.
Protestors are demanding amendments to the constitution, a new election and a halt to the harassment and abuse of rights activists.
The initial demonstrations began early this year, shortly after Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party in Feb. 21 and banned its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, from politics for 10 years.
The party, which came in third place in the 2019 election, was favored by young voters.
However, the protests were temporarily halted when the COVID-19 outbreak created a country-wide lockdown, including a restriction on public gatherings.
Now, tech - savvy students have coordinated so-called ‘flash mobs’ on short notice, often posting on social media sites just days before the events, to avoid a security backlash.
“At the first protest in Democracy Monument we put Free Youth on the hashtag and that’s our first moment using that hashtag and it went viral very quickly and become a number one in the World,” recalls a 23 - year old female student leader, who travelled to the Northern city to show her support for the event. Like others who commented for this report, the student leader wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.
But not all participants at the demonstration support the movement as several plainclothes police officers are among the crowd, photographing participants and monitoring the speeches.
Amongst the crowd of about 400 people at Sunday’s rally in Lampang, a pair of young men held up framed photos of self - exiled Thai academics Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, both of whom face arrest over lèse majesté charges.
Under Thailand’s Section 112 of the Criminal Code, lèse majesté, or criticism of the monarchy, is banned by the constitution.
Some protest leaders are worried that if their speeches are interpreted to be critical of the ruling party, they could also be forced into exile.
“Tae” a student activist leader who asked not to use his real name, says he has already been summoned by the police following a recent rally.
“Many of my friends who’ve I’ve contacted have reported getting followed by a car. We’re not sure what the intentions are but we know for sure that this is harassment from the government.”
“It’s a dark path,” he says. “There’s no clear path that we could take because the economy has created this overwhelming pressure for the younger generation to come out and be the leaders to demand all our rights back.”
‘Tae’ has good reason to worry.
Thai authorities have begun criminal proceedings against at least 25 individuals for their role in protests, since the start of the Emergency decree, according to rights groups.
“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures to protect people from the pandemic, the government has not offered evidence to justify the extension of its limitless state of emergency,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch, in the report, Thailand: State of Emergency Extension Unjustified.
Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-Ocha has announced a recent extension of the Emergency Decree until Aug. 31, citing the urgent need to continue monitoring of the pandemic.
“Extending the emergency will allow Thai authorities to continue to repress contrary views, arrest critics, and ban peaceful rallies for political and not public health reasons,” Adams said in the report.
Many of the participants in the movement include high school and university students belonging to the groups “Free Youth” and the “Union of Students of Thailand.”
Despite their inexperience, veteran activists say the young demonstrators should not be underestimated by the ruling government who have used words like ‘adorable’ to describe the young protesters.
Tanet Charoenmuang, a political science professor at Chiang Mai University says that communication technology has given the next generation a leading edge over protests of the past.
“I see a big difference with this movement right now. Instead of going all the way to Bangkok they set up groups in local areas everywhere. The advantage is that they can organize people in local areas. They don’t need to spend so much money traveling by bus or train or plane to Bangkok,” the 69-year-old veteran activist told VOA.
Charoenmuang sees this period as a valuable learning process for young people to become more aware of the political situation but the added COVID risk has benefited the government, he says.
“The new way by using the emergency law as a new political tool to block people from getting together is another interesting development.”
With increased exposure to online apps during the crisis, many groups are choosing safer alternatives to personal meetings.
“It’s a must to use these apps to set up meetings because it gives us some security because if we talk about the situation in Thailand right now, there are many risk if we were to meet in public and discuss how we want to change the government,” says activist Tae.
But not all supporters of the new movement are confident that it will succeed.
In Thailand's north, farmers who supported the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party were promised guaranteed prices for their crops.
But many have seen these promises broken - or at least put on hold - since the 2019 election and the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year.
“I’m not entirely confident that the student movement will be successful with their protest but I will support them. I want to see permanent change. I don’t want things to go back to the same way as we used to be,” says San Khampeera, a rice farmer in Chiang Mai province.
The government has announced that it is setting up an Extraordinary Commission to open dialogue between demonstrators and the government.
Palang Pracharath Party spokesperson Dr. Thanakorn says Prime Minister Prayuth is open to discussion with the demonstrators.
“The country has been affected from COVID-19 and Thai people have to work together more so I want every side come to speak together and understand each other to find a solution,” Thanakorn said in a statement on his Face Book site this week.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy organizers say demonstrations will continue until all demands are met, with the next major demonstration planned for this Friday in Bangkok.