By Noel Caballero
Bangkok, May 7 (EFE).- Hundreds of thousands of young people who began a historic protest movement in Thailand in 2020 that broke taboos and rattled the foundations of power will go to the polls next Sunday confident that their votes will contribute to “inevitable” democratic reform.
While the protests have been buried, with almost 2,000 young people subjected to what NGO Thai Lawyers for Human Rights describes as politically-motivated prosecution, they have altered the political landscape through demands for profound democratic change, reaching as far as the all-powerful monarchy, and the movement’s revolutionary ideals remain intact.
Immersed in politics, committed to activism and some even disenchanted with the drift of the initial movement, many protesters have decided to vote for change and against parties that represent military power, still feeling the ripples of the 2014 coup.
That spirit is centered above all on one party: the reformist Move Forward, heir to the once-popular Future Forward, which was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020, a trigger for the protests. According to polls, Move Forward could get 20 percent of the vote in the May 14 general election, making it the second strongest political force after fellow opposition party Pheu Thai.
TAKING THE FIGHT INSIDE
“I am one of the people who fought side-by-side with others on the streets. And now I will take the fight to parliament. More importantly, I will take the demands that have been declared by the people to parliament,” says Piyarat Chongthep, a candidate for the legislative assembly for Move Forward, and who still has legal proceedings pending against him for minor charges related to his participation in the protests.
The 32-year-old resigned in 2022 from his position as head of WeVolunteer – a group that carried out security work during protests – to make the leap into politics, saying that Thai society “has come very far in the span of four years.”
However, he believes that change will come through compromise, not through a revolution or by taking up arms.
With policies that include abolishing compulsory military service and being open to the possibility of amending the hardline laws that protect the royal household from criticism, this party is a favorite of the protesters.
“We need to speak up about the things that have always been swept under the rug. We need to speak about the powerful and the magnates who take control of the society. We need to have the courage to speak about institutions that obstruct society from progressing, and we have to speak up about outdated laws,” Piyarat says.
“If we are able to change this, I believe society and the economy will be better.”
DEMOCRACY BEYOND THE VOTE
Amid prosecution for three allegations of lèse-majesté – each punishable by up to 15 years in prison – for her participation in the peaceful protests, Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon does not shy away from speaking publicly about politics and change in Thai society.
“The protest movement seems to have died out, but actually what we have been promoting since 2020 is planting and cultivating a new mindset so that people feel like politics is a normal thing to talk about,” says the 27-year-old, who works on the YouTube channel “Friends Talk” where she interviews candidates and attends electoral rallies.
The activist, whose interest in politics began when she was a teenager during the last coup and subsequent military rule (2014-2019), said that the protests have helped people to “pay a lot more attention” to these elections and to reach a point where talking about issues as controversial as the monarchy is now “normal.”
Despite the repression of the movement, Mind maintains her activism with a series of projects, some directly related to the upcoming elections, such as looking for volunteers to observe the counting of ballots.
“People not only want to cast their vote on election day, but they want to have hope that things will change for the better and the power will shift (…) Thailand will change for the better when people in parliament accept the demands of the people on the streets and try to find solutions,” says the young woman, who intends to vote for “a party that pushes for political change.”
With the first public demands of the reform movement, Tissa, a 26-year-old company founder who prefers not to give her full name, was excited to learn that she “wasn’t alone” and that many young people had the same concerns regarding the future of the country.
Her public support and attendance at marches clashed head-on with her father’s conservative ideals, leading to numerous family arguments.
“He didn’t understand that I questioned the situation of the country, because (he said) I didn’t have enough experience,” she says.
However, she began to distance herself from the movement as a result of a series of ideological and spending decisions that she “didn’t agree on,” despite remaining committed to change.
The young woman will vote in support of the “reformist” party which, in her opinion, is “the only one that can make Thailand a modern democracy,” and she is confident that change is “inevitable.”
THE TIME IS NOW
Kapook, 34 and who prefers not to give her full name, attended multiple protests and even baked cookies that she sold through social media, donating all proceeds to the movement.
Now a volunteer for Move Forward, the party for which her boyfriend is on the electoral list, she remains committed to the movement and affirms without hesitation that “change will definitely come with this election,” whether big or small.
Despite the fact that she will vote for the party she helps, she does not see it as “that progressive” by representing some ideals of the protests because, in her opinion, it has “compromised a lot in negotiation with the conservatives.”
“I think there will definitely be a party that represents more radical and progressive ideologies, formed by the people who were once protesters. However, I don’t know if there will be enough people who support this kind of extreme ideology,” she says. EFE