They have rallied while dressed as Harry Potter and mocked Thailand’s government with songs about hamsters, but ongoing protests by Thai students this summer have now taken a bolder twist that carry the risk lengthy jail terms.
Demonstrations that began with calls to end harassment of government critics and for constitutional changes to restrict the army’s influence over politics have expanded to a 10-point demand for the reform of the monarchy.
The statement, repeated at several rallies last week, was a daring move in a country where strict “lese-majeste” laws against insulting or defaming the king can be punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, who first took power in a 2014 coup, admonished the mainly student protesters for going too far. Veteran activists concede that the movement is reaching a precarious moment with an unpredictable outcome.
The democracy movement in Thailand has become such a great platform for young Thai artists to showcase their art (credit: @GiveMuseums).#WhatsHappeningInThailand#RespectThaiDemocracy#MilkTeaAlliance#หยุดคุมคามประชาชน pic.twitter.com/daWIBkG7T6— Tracy Beattie (@tracingtheworld) August 15, 2020
“They [students] are continuing to push the boundary. At the same time, the state is trying to suppress them in all sorts of ways,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor in Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University. “We are heading towards a very dangerous juncture in Thai politics.”
The economic crisis triggered by the global pandemic had given the protests more traction nationwide, he said.
The protests appear to have been partly inspired by the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, by choosing not to appoint one central leader, and showing a similar hallmark of creativity. Earlier this year the two movements exchanged messages of support on social media using the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.
“Undoubtedly if you look at the composition of the protesters you know that these are Gen Z and the younger generation going out on the streets using new tactics,” said Mr Chachavalpongpun who, as a self-exiled academic, addressed protesters remotely last week via video link.
Protesters have borrowed pop culture symbols, including songs from Hamtaro, a Japanese manga cartoon series about a male hamster, and from the musical Les Miserables, as well as the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games movies.
In another innovative tactic, young activists have started using alternative social media platforms, including online dating apps and popular Twitch gaming streams, to spread messages about their pro-democracy struggle.
When Parit Chiwarak, a prominent student activist known as “Penguin”, was arrested on Friday night, popular game streamers in Thailand were suddenly inundated with messages to support him and to join an upcoming rally on Sunday, reported the Thai Enquirer.
Anti-government protesters have also begun flooding widespread online video games like Call of Duty or League of Legends with political hashtags, including #FreeYouth and #FreeThailand.
This week's arrest of Penguin and several other high profile protesters on charges of sedition -- which carries a maximum seven-year prison term -- has fuelled concerns that the authorities are gearing up for a wider crackdown.
Human Rights Watch warned on Saturday that it had information the police were planning to arrest at least 31 people, including many student leaders, in the coming days.
“Each new arrest of a peaceful pro-democracy activist shows the Thai government’s authoritarian tendences and lack of respect for human rights,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “Peaceful protests and critical expression demanding political reform should not be criminalised.”