Dancing with dictatorship: how the government is dealing with the Free Youth movement

By Pattawee Chotanan

The protests and demands made by the Free Youth Movement (now called the Free People Movement) are not limited to Bangkok. Like a musical call-and-response, the protests in the capital have been answered by people from across the country: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Lamphun, Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham, Sakon Nakhon, Buriram, Ubon Ratchathani, Surat Thani, Krabi, Rayong, and Chanthaburi.

Most of the protesters are students in university and high school. They take turns to mount the stage and share their views of the government’s performance. The failings of the Thai justice system, inequality in society, the forced disappearances of dissidents are also hot topics, as are the freedoms that a democracy ought to guarantee.

Wherever these protests occur, the government will attempt to limit or control the protests. They claim that they are acting to maintain peace and public order. In this article, I wish to detail the specific ways in which the government tries to deal with the students. I put it to you, the reader, to judge whether the government’s methods are in keeping with its claim to be maintaining peace and order. The ten methods used are as follows:

1. Force and intimidation

1.1 When the protesting students have been identified, police and military personnel visit their parents at home or pay a visit to the students at school or university. The officers say that they are there so that the students don’t participate in the protests, do anything illegal, or espouse any incorrect (according the government) political views.

1.2 Intimidation via the school or university administration. This is smoother than sending in the police or internal security officers to deal directly with the students. Pressure is put on the school or university’s administrators to discipline the students involved in protests. When protests occur, the students are called in for a warning. It tends to go along the lines of telling students they won’t being able to join the police or military, get a government job –or indeed any decent job at all– after they graduate because of their record. They are then threatened with the prospect of legal action should they persist.

iLaw has documented about 50 instances of such intimidation between May 18 to August 6.

1.3 When the protest goes ahead, plainclothes officers are sure to be there. While the uniformed officers are quite visibly there to ensure the safety, good conduct, and public order at the protests, the plainclothes officers can be found mingling with the crowd. They go around asking people questions about how the protest was organized, who the speakers are, etc. The protesters are quite wary of these plainclothes officers because they don’t display or produce any personal identification revealing their names or units. Yet, they stand out in the crowd with their regulation haircuts.

2. Inviting protesters to “reach and understanding”

Prior to a protest titled, “Dare to Face the Dictatorship,” in Phitsanulok, certain students who the government regarded as some of the protest’s key organizers were rounded up. They were taken to Camp Phraya Chakri of the paramilitary border patrol police and their phones were confiscated. They were not allowed to contact anybody while there. The Superintendent of Border Patrol Police Division 31 denied everything, dismissing reports of the students’ presence at Camp Phraya Chakri as a publicity stunt.

Police officers watch on as protesters gather at Khon Kaen city’s Democracy Monument on August 20.

3. Arrests and charges

This measure is mostly reserved for the people who actually speak on stage or are otherwise deemed by the government to be key organizers. The aim is to strike fear into them and paralyze the local protest movement. The thinking behind this is that if the protests can be “beheaded,” the bulk of the protesters will be too afraid to continue.

A prime example of this was the arrest of lawyer Anon Nampha, Phanuphong Chadnok, and Parit Chiwarak on August 7. Eight charges were filed against them by the Royal Thai Police. The arrests were publicly denounced by MPs of the Move Forward Party and the Pheu Thai Party as well as Amnesty International, who demanded their immediate release and for charges to be dropped. In the end, they were released on bail. Their bail conditions stipulated that they must not participate in any protests or political activism.

4. Disinformation

The government has started to put forth a narrative in which the Free People Movement are villains seeking to destroy the nation and the monarchy. They are also trying to paint the protests as rent-a-mobs, insinuating that left alone, the students could never have come up with such demands or activism by themselves, that some nefarious power or group must have put them up to it, and that the protesters are nothing more than misguided political pawns. This is at best an insult to the intelligence, motivation, and bravery of these youngsters in demanding that the nation’s problems –and certain elephants in the room– be addressed. It takes guts to demand that “it stops with our generation.”

5. The deployment of Information Operations (IO) units

The creation of competing narratives would have little to no effect were it not for the creation and deployment of dedicated IO units under the aegis of the military’s cyber command. Their mission is to wage information warfare against the protesters, and in general any information source which threatens the official narrative. They can be found with their sparse personal profiles on the Instagram, and Twitter pages and profiles of activists, dissidents, or indeed any individual or organization that has a bone to pick with the government, and is popular enough to be noticed.

More than that, the IO units’ particular mission when it comes to this crop of protests is to spin events and deflect the criticism made by the protesters. They also create and spread false news in order to create confusion in the information space, as well as to act as an echo chamber for the official narrative.

All of this is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the protests, and to discredit the Free People Movement. Most importantly, they try to put forth a narrative in which the protesters are causing problems and sowing divisions which may lead to violence in society– so that any violent confrontations can later be blamed on the protesters –as well as causing economic hardship.

Apart from the use of IO units, the government has expanded its information warfare capabilities by setting up social media pages for sympathetic online volunteers. The aim is to create a movement of online, pro-government vigilantes to monitor and blow the whistle on wrongdoers on the internet. The stated targets for these groups are fake news, online gambling sites, and pornography. Yet, by pitting citizens against each other and by encouraging one group of citizens to witch-hunt those with different political opinions, the government is encouraging the very societal fractures which it claims to be guarding against.

6. Control of the media

The government is keeping a tight rein on the mainstream media. Both the print media and television channels are largely ignoring the protests in order to minimize the spread of the protester’s messaging in Thai society. Any mention, if at all, tends to be surface-level reports of events with no critical details or context given. If you were to compare what is presented on mainstream media with the coverage of the mostly online-based, alternative media, it would appear as if they were living in two different worlds.

7. Obstruct and frustrate

This method comes into play when the protesters make a formal application to protest, as per the law, with the relevant authorities. In some cases, the officials try to talk the protestors out of even submitting the application. Or they play a game of continuously passing the buck of responsibility for giving permission from this department to that department. Once lodged, the consideration of the application itself is dragged out for as long as possible, particularly if the protest area is not within university grounds and local government authorities are responsible for granting permission. The protest leaders are also very likely to be charged with violations of the Maintenance of the Cleanliness and Orderliness Act of 1987 or the Controlling Public Advertisement by Sound Amplifier Act of 1950, so that they will be inconvenienced by the fines.

Permission to use a certain public area for protest must be lodged directly with the police. Protests taking place on the grounds of a certain university faculty would come under the purview of the dean (that faculty?), and if it is within a university but not at any particular faculty, the university rector is responsible. Some universities have given their full cooperation to the students, whereas others have shut down the protest just when the stage was to be given over to the speakers.

All of these things point to a concerted effort by the government which, in bad faith, tries to make it as hard as possible for protestors to exercise their democratic rights. They are in effect upping the stakes and increasing the capital needed to even organize or attend a protest because the protesters have to contend with legal action, fines, and unusually zealous law-enforcement in and around the protest area.

8. Support for pro-government groups

It is perhaps no surprise that the government supports pro-government groups who launch counter protests. They receive a great deal of police cooperation, a smooth and fast application process for the protest itself, and no legal action or fines afterwards. Importantly, this is despite the fact that the pro-government counter protests tend to be goading or acting confrontationally towards the anti-government protests.

9. Gaslighting and delays

The government plays a game of bait-and-switch when the protests start to become too heated. For example, when the questions start to get too uncomfortable for the government, the government announces that the emergency decree will not be applied to the protests at this time, even though they had just threatened the protesters with arrest under emergency powers prior to the protest. Then, the government announces that a committee will be set up to consider the student’s criticisms and proposals.

This may seem like the government is willing to listen but it is merely buying time and hoping to sweep the matter under the rug because the government has infinite resources and staying power compared to the protesters. By doing this, the government can claim that it is considering the grievances, and that therefore the protesters have no legitimate reason to continue protests.

10. Negotiation

When the protests go ahead despite all previous measures, the government resorts to negotiation in an attempt to moderate the talking points of the protest. Most recently, the government tried to persuade the protesters to steer clear of criticizing the monarchy. The government considered this topic to be far too sensitive to be allowed for public discussion, and it was very uneasy about the protester’s raising the ceiling of public discourse to include criticism of the monarchy.

In an apparent effort to control damage, the government has been begging protesters not to stray beyond their initial three demands. But on the other hand, the government has started to roll out their own soundbites through their media machine, labelling the protestors as people who want to destroy the nation and the monarchy. Instead of allowing the topic to be freely discussed and for society to exercise its own faculties of reason and judgement, the government is frantically trying to stifle any mention of the monarchy at all in return for a free pass on the protests.

This is how the dictatorship has been dancing with the protesters over the past month. Instead of allowing and facilitating the people’s freedom to protest and jointly air their political views, as is common practice in a democracy. Instead, the government has resorted to intimidation and suppression. They will be remembered for trying to prevent the youth of the nation from speaking out and demanding solutions to the problems faced by society.

Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team or any of its partner organizations