Commentary: Thailand has done well in taming the coronavirus pandemic so what’s with these protests?

Commentary: Thailand has done well in taming the coronavirus pandemic so what’s with these protests?

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been careful not to give the protesters a reason for escalation, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Termsak Chalermpalanupap.

Demonstrators light up their smartphones as they gather during a protest demanding
Demonstrators light up their smartphones as they gather during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, under a highway in Pathum Thani, at the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, July 23, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

SINGAPORE: The recent resurgence of anti-government flashmobs in Thailand last week has once again raised the political temperature. 

But one clear silver lining in the increasingly ominous clouds is the diminishing fear of COVID-19 in the Thai kingdom, not least among the young protestors who are demanding drastic political changes.

The outbreak of the pandemic in Thailand earlier this year abruptly ended a round of similar campus protests, organised and coordinated by the Student Federation of Thailand.  

Most Thai universities’ student unions disagreed with the Constitutional Court’s February decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party — the second largest opposition party in the current parliament. 

But they could not mobilise large-scale protests because of concerns about the spread of the mysterious disease in large public gatherings and restrictions that imposed curfews and outlawed such gatherings.

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However, continuing success in tackling the challenge of COVID-19 in the country of 70 million people has largely eased such concerns and allowed the relaxation of rules in June. 

THAILAND HAS SUCCEEDED IN CONTAINING COVID-19

More Thais are looking forward to a quick return to normalcy, albeit in a “new normal” world.

The country has managed to bring the coronavirus spread under heel. On Friday (Jul 24), Thailand reported 10 new cases of infections. All were imported, including six among Thai military personnel returning from training in Hawaii.

The total of diagnosed cases rose to 3,279, but there was no increase in the death toll, which remained at 58. On the same day, the world saw nearly 288,000 new cases, taking the total to beyond 15.5 million with over 630,000 deaths.

Pro-democracy protest in Bangkok
The Democracy monument is seen reflected on a window as demonstrators attend a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, in Bangkok, Thailand on Jul 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

For the 56th straight day, the Thai kingdom saw no new domestic infections.  Health authorities are confident they have the capability and the know-how to cope with any new wave of the coronavirus – and rightly so.    

The Thai government is therefore contemplating the sixth phase of re-opening, which would include allowing about 100,000 unskilled foreign workers to re-enter the country and return to their jobs. The only pending question is who would pay for their 14-day quarantine, which costs about 20,000 baht (US$634) per head.

Thailand’s success in battling COVID-19 has attracted the World Health Organisation’s praise and international media attention. Bloomberg has ranked Thailand the fourth most successful non-Western country in coping with the pandemic.

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PRAYUT’S NEW PRIORITIES

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has gained popular support because of his administration’s success in coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  This has given him new confidence as he prepares to reshuffle his cabinet.  

He needs a capable new chief economic advisor to succeed Deputy Prime Minister Dr Somkid Jatusripitak, who resigned under strong pressure from the new leadership of Palang Pracharat, the core party in the 19-party ruling coalition.    

What will make or break Prayut’s premiership is the quality of his new cabinet, particularly his new team of economic ministers and their success in bringing about economic recovery. This is why Prayut has insisted on choosing competent candidates for key economic posts, instead of leaving the appointment of new ministers to the whims of senior politicians in the Palang Pracharat Party.

Pro-democracy activists protest in Bangkok
Demonstrators gather during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, under a highway in Pathum Thani, at the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, Jul 23, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

Prayut’s firm stand against the political pressure from the party will win him even greater public support. The Thai populace in general wants political stability so that social and economic recovery can proceed safely and fruitfully.

Prayut seems to be more secure politically as he leads the ruling coalition into its second year in power.

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BUT THAI PROTESTERS WANT CHANGE NOW

However, a stronger, more confident Prayut is not what his critics want to see.  Many of them had expected that the prime minister would fail in less than a year.  

His survival is why Thailand now sees the resurgence of flashmobs and their revival of old demands: The immediate resignation of Prayut, the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the drafting of a new constitution, the resignation of all the 250 appointed senators, local government elections after four years of suspension, a new general election under the new constitution and more.

These protests, organised via social media connections and pages announcing forthcoming gatherings, venues and timings, appear and disappear within a few hours, unlike when Thais camped overnight to occupy public spaces in past demonstrations. But they have been disruptive nevertheless.

In response, the House has merely set up an ad hoc committee to explore ways and means of improving Section 256 in the 2017 Constitution, the section concerning constitutional amendment. 

At present, any amendment requires support of at least one-third of the 250 senators.

But few of them would want to lend support for such a move and risk being seen as adversarial to the current government for fear they may have to give up their plum positions, given the Thai Senate can sit until 2024.

The constitution also currently allows both appointed senators and elected House representatives to pick the Prime Minister but protesters want the balance to be weighted more heavily towards elected House representatives.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks to media members
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks to the media at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand on Jun 6, 2019. (File photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

With support of the Senate, Prayut would need just 125 votes in the 500-member House to return to power, should there be a need to dissolve the House and call a new general election. This advantage frees him from being held hostage by any major government party.

And does Prayut, who enjoyed the support of 249 of the 250 senators in becoming prime minister in June 2019, want to give up the advantage of en bloc support from the senators? 

In the wake of the renewed flashmobs, the House has also set up a second ad hoc committee, to review the demands of the protesters. However, opposition parties have boycotted this new move, framing it as a ploy on the part of the ruling coalition to buy time. 

What the opposition parties want is to see Prayut meet directly with representatives of the protesters and tell them how he will respond to their demands.

For the time being, Prayut is playing safe. He has not ordered for harsh law enforcement action to be take or made any missteps that might inflame the situation. 

He has argued his decision to extend the current emergency decree by another month, until the end of August, was done with an eye on public health alone. 

In a deft move on the prime minister’s part last week, the Thai government announced that while the emergency decree has been extended, there will be no ban on public gatherings or revival of any lockdown or night curfew.

Now it depends on what the protesters do next.  They have threatened to escalate their protests in two weeks, by if their demands are not met by Aug 1. 

They may organise more flashmobs to reiterate their existing demands and introduce new demands.

But without mass public support, it is doubtful how raising their voices will force Prayut to give in.

Thais are, in general, not in the mood for violence or disruptions. And Prayut is being very careful not to give the protesters any new reason to escalate the situation.

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Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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