The Thai government needs to step back from the brink. Before the world, it is facing off against its youth; any society that does so imperils its own future.

In the case of the movement that has been building over the past five months or so, it has become a battle between children and their elders. “Children” is meant metaphorically here, but with the significant segment of Thailand’s social movement comprising kids under 18, it is also a fact. 

High school students occasionally play a role in social movements, such as in Canada in the Quebec student protests in 1996 or the United Students Against Sweatshops some 20 years ago in the US. But when they have mobilized, school-aged students often play distant, secondary roles.

There was also the 1963 Children’s Crusade in the civil rights movement where children marched on city hall in Birmingham, Alabama only to be driven back by water canons and police attack dogs. Though the movement was condemned for endangering children, tv coverage of the event was one of the factors that pushed then-President John F. Kennedy to pursue change.

In Thailand, it’s been these young people and children who have come to certain conclusions on their own: 

The status quo is not okay.

A dictator who pushed through a constitution in a questionable referendum is not okay. 

A dictator who engineered his way into an “elected” prime minister is not okay. 

Democracy monument in Khon Kaen province. Photo by Atithep Chanthet

A constitution that is little more than a blueprint to keep the military in power for decades and virtually unable to significantly change is not okay.

An education system that spends more time teaching obedience and formulaic “learning,” designed to create obedient citizens of the future, and completely eschewing critical thinking, is not okay. 

A monarchy–or any other public institution–that is not accountable financially, legally, constitutionally, is not okay. 

A coup to change (or maintain) the status quo is not okay. 

Arresting and detaining critics on spurious legal grounds is not okay.

Declaring emergency law when only an illegitimate regime is at risk is not okay. 

These are not unreasonable demands. They are merely the minimum conditions of any country that wants to claim itself to be a democracy.

The Bangkok elite does not appear to know how to handle this kind of challenge. Their minions started by trying to tie this movement to international funders working to build civil society in Thailand. Even using the most obscure mind maps, they couldn’t blame Thaksin Shinawatra. They couldn’t blame Red Shirts. They couldn’t even blame the upstart Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

So, instead, they pursued a worn and tired line of reasoning: They claimed that these children were obviously duped. It was inconceivable to them that these children and young people could, through consuming and processing social media, come to the conclusions they did.

They conflated their desire to reform the monarchy with their being anti-monarchy. They have tried to smear the current movement as they did to other democratic movements in 1976, 1992, and 2010. They seized on this when the palace insisted on having the royal motorcade go down Ratdamnoen Road–a provocative and terribly misguided choice given the youth movement had already planned a protest there. Afterwards, they used this choice to claim that demonstrators intended to do harm to the royalty, enforcing an emergency decree based on an obscure, little used law.

Satish Sehgal, a representative of the woefully-misnamed People’s Democratic Reform Committee of 2014 now says these young people were not “properly educated” about Thailand’s history and these youth “are not true representatives of the young generation.” These youth, says Mr. Selgal, are being manipulated by “political groups.” He says they are “guided by emotions and false or distorted information.”

Is this a widely held view? On the website of the generally liberal Bangkok Post, 2,218 readers disliked Mr. Selgal’s article–97.4%–and only 59 liked it. This is not exactly scientific, but it is indicative. There is an upswell of sentiment throughout the country for necessary changes.

An assembly of a group that calls itself the People’s Party at Victory Monument on October 18, 2020. Photo by Naratip Thongthanom.

But the Bangkok elite are, as usual, out of step with the reality on the ground.

This group and their ironclad hold onto power has been given notice time and again that change is upon them.

It was given notice after it overthrew the most democratic and popular constitution in Thai history in 2006. 

It was given notice when the red shirts fought and died in 2010. 

It was given notice once again after they overthrew the government again in 2014, despite the majority remaining loyal to a democratic future. 

Poor Mr. Sehgal is convinced that the youth movement does not represent a majority of the country, or even of the youth. If he thinks the youth that he sees in Bangkok are misguided, he ought to come to the Northeast and see what an entire population has had to weather from what he and the people he represents have wrought on this country.

Here’s a population whose majority has seen the government they’ve helped elect twice removed by coups and twice removed by courts. The democratic aspirations of the majority in this region have been frustrated again and again. They have played by the rules–elections–and been thwarted time and again.

The rules (in the 2017 constitution) were written so that the Bangkok elite will always win. It’s a rigged game. And when the youth are perceptive enough to point out this obvious bias, they must have been misguided, duped, and played by others.

There is no “national security” issue at play with demonstrations in Bangkok and scattered in provincial cities throughout the country. Thailand is not at threat, in fact, these protests would indicate quite the opposite. Rather, it is the military dictatorship, pretending to be a democracy and throwing laws at protesters willy-nilly, that is in trouble. 

Many in the country had their eyes opened in 2010 and they’re still open. Now, their children, many of whom have come of age in a time of dictatorship, have seen the truth of what is going on in Thailand. Theirs is a second awakening, yet another segment of the population expressing its aspirations for a different kind of country. Meanwhile, their elders are scrambling to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, to hold together an increasingly antiquated vision of what this country is and might still be.

Maybe it’s time for the elders to get out of the way. The children have become the teachers and they have important lessons to teach us.

Let the Children’s Revolt play out and allow them to be foolish enough to believe that Thailand could actually become a democracy. After all, their futures and the future of the country stretches out long before them. 

Not so for the elders.