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Opinion: Thai Society Faces Challenges Beyond Cycles of Protests

Anti-government protest on Sept. 19, 2020.

The major anti-government protests today and Sunday will not only be about demands – but numbers, legitimacy, and how to coexist with those who disagree with you.

Numbers-wise, Thammasat University student activist and protest co-leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak told me he expects around 50,000 demonstrators to show up today to support the demands for a new charter, new general elections and monarchy reforms.

Meanwhile, veteran pro-democracy activist Sombat Boonngam-anong and former deputy leader of the now disbanded Future Forward Party Chamnan Chanruang predicted that 100,000 or more will show up. I discussed the matter with a friend and we concur that anything below 30,000 mark will be a sign of the movement petering out.

On another number criteria, over 50,000 signatures have been collected by iLaw, a law reform advocacy group, to push for a new charter drafting process to replace the current junta-sponsored constitution. 

On the other end of the political spectrum, royalist Thai Phakdee group said on Monday that it has collected over 150,000 signatures opposing any charter rewrite – but unlike iLaw’s signatures, their signatures are collected via Google Forms. 

In the end, anyone can make demands or counter-demands, to their hearts’ content. Being able to achieve their goals without violence or suppressing others is another story.

The numbers race continues. Some anti-government demonstrators belittled how few royalists have managed to turn out in person on the streets over the past two months.

Short of holding a free and fair referendum on the demands by the protesters, there won’t be any definite gauge on where the silent majority of the 69 or so million Thais stand.

Whatever the numbers both sides may claim, both the protesters and royalists have to bear in mind that they can’t escape or avoid one another. They can’t wave a magic wand in hope that there will be no more opposition and resistance to their respective “idealized” version of a desired Thai society.

Unlike in social media, in real society, you can’t simply block and ignore people who disagree with you. In real life, when there exists deep disagreement, various parties should try to find a common ground and solutions for a peaceful coexistence.

Can there be a compromise, an accommodation of one another – or will it have to be another zero-sum game with no middle ground, with violence, a military coup or people’s revolt as the only outcome?

Thai history shows that change, including regime change, by force is much more common than peaceful transition and transformation. Now both sides, particularly the government of Gen Prayut Chan-ocha must ensure peace and guarantee the right to peaceful assembly.

In a way, the number game, as it is being played out, is like a poker game. Each side claims they are more representative of the majority of the people, more legitimate. That they are patriotic.

It would be a waste of another opportunity for peaceful change and transition if both sides fail, or refuse, to listen to the demands and grievances of the other.

To make the matter more complicated, is the fact that even among the anti-government alliance, they seem to still differ on the priority of what should come first, Is it new charter, new elections or monarchy reforms?

Many on the side of the protests are young. All sides do not need to repeat the same mistake of the violent past and seek a common solution that is peaceful.

The ability to deal with disagreement in a peaceful and accommodating manner is a hallmark of a true democracy. The large protests can be an opportunity to enlist participation and joint-decision making from a wider group of protesters in a transparent manner, not just keeping power in the hands of a few.

Ordinary protesters should not be reduced to mere passive spectators or consumers of political protests anticipating what the few leaders’ extra demands would be when they go onstage in the evening. 

The time has also come for the young protest leadership to make its movement not just democratic by name but democratic and participatory and transparent in how it’s being run. This will demonstrate to the public beyond doubt that they are not just for democracy but democratic and its core and in how they conduct themselves.

Thai society faces challenges beyond protests and counter-protests. We have to learn how to deal with it and resolve it peacefully and democratically.

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