Strategy Note / Thailand

Thailand youth-led protests add to old schism and sclerosis

  • State of emergency from military and monarchy aligned government amid youth-led protest for constitutional reform
  • These protestors traverse old schism of Yellows (military, monarchy, urban, central) and Reds (democracy, rural, north)
  • Youth-led protests need Reds for critical mass but their criticism of monarchy and Shinawatra exile make this unlikely
Thailand youth-led protests add to old schism and sclerosis

The causes of recent youth-led protests in Thailand will not be addressed any time soon. They will likely linger without reaching a tipping point because the traditional source of mass political opposition does not share the anti-monarchy demands of these protests and the leadership of that traditional opposition (the Shinawatras) is in effective exile.

The government likely feels secure enough not to offer concessions but, for fear of alienating the youthful, educated and more liberal segment of its own support base, not to mention the foreign (non-China sovereign) investor base it needs to attract to get the economy going post-Covid, it is unlikely to implement the sort of harsh crackdown that might have been customary in previous eras.

Youth-led protests blur Yellow-Red schism

Protests in Thailand led by youthful activists, but by no means attended by the youth alone, are calling for:

  • The resignation of the current military-aligned government (which, after the 2019 election, renewed the grip on power it has enjoyed since the coup of 2014);

  • Constitutional reform (eg to move from a military-appointed upper house of parliament to an elected one);

  • Greater freedom for critical voices; and

  • A reduction in the power and status of the monarchy.

These protests have picked up from July to a point where there have been counter-protests from pro-monarchists and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has banned gatherings of over five people via emergency decree (on 15 October).

Protests and deep political divisions in Thailand are not a new phenomenon. This round of protests is distinguished by the call for reform of the monarchy; historically, a taboo for most.

Youth-led protestor and traditional 'Red Shirt' perspective

This may signify a generational change in the opposition to the military and military-aligned governments from the 'Red Shirts' (mainly from the northern, poorer, rural parts of the country, and harnessed by the entrepreneurial Shinawatra family under the banner of pro-democracy) to decentralised, youthful leaders, utilising the tools of social media. These protests demonstrate the ability of youthful leaders to organise and mobilise. However, without the masses that the old 'Red Shirts' (with their formal political party networks) could provide, these youth-led protests likely do not reach a tipping point. The youth-led protestors are unlikely to be joined by the traditional 'Red Shirt' opposition because of differing views on the monarchy and because the leadership of that 'Red Shirt', former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra, are in effective exile.

Military-aligned government and traditional 'Yellow Shirt' perspective

On the other hand, the military-government, more aligned historically with 'Yellow Shirts' (mainly from the central Bangkok region, more affluent, urban part of the country), is caught between satisfying the older generation of its support base (those who are fervently pro-monarchy) and the younger portion (who would not respond well to a harsh crackdown on youth-led protestors).

It is not in the interests of the military-aligned government to make concessions on constitutional reform or to diminish the role of the monarchy (with which the military is aligned).

The government's emergency decree effectively banning protests is unlikely to see the end of them. At the same time, the government's room for a harsh crackdown may also be limited. This is because these protests are not defined by the historic schism between 'Yellow Shirts' and 'Red Shirts' when it was possible for military or military-aligned governments to blame the protests on communist influences (as in the 1960s and 70s), or on opportunistic, corrupt oligarchs (as in the 2006-14 period).

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