Past Event

Thailand Update: Protests Revisited

March 16, 2021
9:00 AM - 11:30 AM
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Please join us for a two-day conference on Monday, March 15, 2021 (from 09:00 AM-11:15 AM EST) and Tuesday, March 16, 2021 (from 09:00 AM-11:30 AM EST)

Since the emergence of mass student-led rallies in mid-July 2019, political protest has once again become a major focus of interest in Thailand. This year’s Thailand Update (the sixth so far) links discussions of previous rounds of protest – notably the 6 October 1976 events, the subject of a major new 2020 book by Thongchai Winichakul – to ask searching questions about these recent demonstrations.

High school student protest in front of Ministry of Education, Bangkok, September 5, 2020Credit - Kan Sangtong, photojournalist and protest observer for Mob data Thailand

Day 1: Monday, March 15, 2021

Past and Present: Thailand’s Dark Protest Histories

09:00 AM-09:05 AM Introduction

09:05 AM-10:00 AM Session 1:  Key Talk – Thongchai Winichakul (University of Wisconsin) in conversation with Duncan McCargo (University of Copenhagen)

Thongchai Winichakul will discuss his important new book Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok (Hawaii 2020) with Duncan McCargo; and will reflect on how the student protests of 2020 may be understood through the lens of political struggle, mass protest and state violence in Thailand.

10:00 AM- 11:15 AM Session 2: Tyrell Haberkorn (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Prajak Kongkirati (Thammasat University)

Tyrell Haberkorn: All They Could Do To Us”: Prontip Mankhong’s Prison Memoir and the Resurgence of Lese Majeste

On 23 February 2015, after over six months of pretrial detention, Prontip Mankhong was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison for allegedly defaming the king in a theatre play as part of the wave of arrests and prosecutions after the 22 May 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order. She spent a total of 744 days behind bars in the Central Women’s Prison in Bangkok before being released a few months early on 27 August 2016. Upon release, she immediately began writing a day-by-day account of her imprisonment. The result, her 884-page memoir, All They Could Do To Us, became an immediate bestseller upon its release in 2019 and remains one in 2021. Prontip chose to write in the first-person plural “we” to reflect the multitudes she herself contains. There is another, unacknowledged meaning of the “we” in her memoir and the “us” in the title: her fellow Thais living under dictatorship. At once a detailed, intimate account of her imprisonment, a general guide to surviving authoritarianism also emerges between the lines. Parsing the significance of what is contained between the lines given the recent resurgence of lese majeste cases in late 2020 and early 2021, I examine Prontip’s prison memoir both as an essential herstory of the Women’s Prison that challenges the existing male-dominated narratives of politics and struggle in Thailand and a manual for imagining the new, democratic society to be built after the end of dictatorship.

Prajak Kongkirati: The “Ratsadorn” Movement in Historical Perspective: Royal Nationalism, Radical Discourse, and Repression

This presentation aims to explain the youth-led protests that has occurred in Thailand since 2020 to the present through the historical perspective. The youth movement, “Ratsadorn group 2563”, has disrupted and shaken Thai political society in various fundamental ways. The movement reinvigorates the power of the youth to be at the forefront of political conflicts. This level of active participation and acute political consciousness of Thai students have never been witnessed in Thailand since the 1970s. Its radical discourse and innovative tactics significantly challenge the power and ideological control of the establishment. Royal nationalist discourse, an official and hegemonic ideology of the Thai state, has been openly questioned and criticized by the protesters. Despite the movement’s unique characteristics, however, I argue that we can better understand the current protest by comparing it to the protest movements in the past. The comparison will focus on the relations between military, monarchy, people’s movements and the role of state repression.

Virtual Reception An optional virtual reception via Zoom, with the use of breakout rooms, will follow the completion of Day 1 of the conference.


Thailand Update: Protests Revisited (Part 2)

Day 2: Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Thailand’s 2020 Anti-Government Youth Protests

Papers from a special section of the March 2021 issue of Critical Asian Studies, 53, 2

Guest editors Aim Sinpeng and Duncan McCargo

09:00 AM-10:15 AM Session 3: Aim Sinpeng (University of Sydney) and Saowanee Alexander (Ubon Ratchathani University)

Aim Sinpeng: Hashtag Activism and the Freeyouth Protests 

The Thai anti-government protests in 2020 were mediated largely through social media. This talk will discuss the role of Twitter in the youth protests, focusing specially on the #Freeyouth campaigns. It argues that the 2020 protests mark the politicisation of Twitter, as the platform has become a critical tool for political engagement. 

Saowanee Alexander: Isan people’s involvement in Thailand’s youth-led protests in 2020

Thailand’s Northeast (Isan) is the most politically active region in the country as its people have been involved in struggles against ruling powers for various causes throughout history. But with growing frustrations since the marred 2019 election, exacerbated by the government’s constant suppression of freedom of expression and its abuse of powers towards opposing political parties, Thai youths no longer tolerated the increasingly sorry state of affairs and thus took to the streets in mass rallies in 2020. As this anti-government movement grew out of Bangkok and spread to provinces, many Isan people, especially Redshirt activists welcomed the movement and became one of the main groups that supported youth protests both in Bangkok and Isan provinces. In this paper I discuss Isan protesters’ involvement in the protests and make observations about its relationships with the region’s previous struggles.

10:15 AM-11:30 AM Session 4: Kanokrat Lertchoosakul (Chulalongkorn University) and Duncan McCargo (University of Copenhagen)

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul: The White Ribbon Movement: High School Students in the Thai Youth Protests

This talk discusses the motivations behind the involvement of high school students in the anti-government protests across Thailand in 2020. Drawing on 150 school and 150 university student interviews, focus groups, and observation of sixteen protests conducted around the country, it argues that protesting youths were motivated by grievances against repressive, authoritative and unaccountable conservative education systems and political institutions, particularly the monarchy.

Duncan McCargo: Disruptors’ Dilemma? Thailand’s 2020 Gen Z Protests

This paper offers a preliminary analysis of the hundreds of youth-inspired mass protests staged in Thailand during 2020. It argues that while calling for reforms and flirting with revolutionary rhetoric, the protestors lacked a clear programmatic agenda and were primarily engaged in disrupting dominant narratives about the country’s politics, especially in relation to the previously taboo question of the political role of the monarchy. Despite the ad hoc and sometimes incoherent nature of the protests, the students mounted a dramatic challenge to Thailand’s ruling elite. Ultimately, the conflict exemplified a generational divide: people from Generation Z, aged under 25, have radically different understandings of power, deference and legitimacy from older population groups. Whatever happens to the protest movement in the short term, the demonstrators have made a decisive break with the old social consensus that existed during the long reign of the late King Bhumibol (1946–2016).

Speakers Bios:

Duncan McCargo is Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen and the Director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. He taught at Columbia from 2015-2019 and is a co-founder of the New York Southeast Asia Network. Duncan’s books include: Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Cornell 2008), which won the 2009 Bernard Schwartz Prize; Fighting for Virtue: Justice and Politics in Thailand (Cornell 2019) and Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party (with Anyarat Chattharakul) (NIAS Press 2020).

Thongchai Winichakul is Professor Emeritus of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His book, Siam Mapped (1994) was awarded the Harry J. Benda Prize from the Association for Asian Studies and the Grand Prize from the Asian Affairs Research Council (Japan). He was a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Award in 1994 and elected the President of the Association for Asian Studies in 2013/14. His research interests are in cultural and intellectual history of Siam including nationalism, modern geography and cartography, and historical knowledge. He currently works on the intellectual foundation of modern Siam (1880 to 1930) and recently published Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok (Hawaii 2020). He also publishes widely in Thai, including many political and social commentaries.

Tyrell Haberkorn is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin and currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University. Tyrell researches and writes about state violence and dissident cultural politics in Thailand from the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 until the present. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence (2011) and In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (2018). She is currently writing a first draft of an indictment of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that took power in the 22 May 2014 coup, and translating Prontip Mankhong’s prison memoir, All They Could Do To Us [มันทำร้ายเราได้แค่นี้แหละ]. Tyrell also writes and translates frequently about Southeast Asia for a public audience, including Dissent, Foreign Affairs, Mekong Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, openDemocracy, and Prachatai.

Prajak Kongkirati is Assistant Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Academic Services in the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University. He was formerly a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He has published widely in the fields of Thai politics, conflict and violence, party and electoral politics, democratization, and social movements. His book And Then the Movement Emerged: The Cultural Politics of Thai Students and Intellectual Movements before the October 14 Uprising (in Thai) (2005), received an award for the best book in the social sciences in Thailand.

Aim Sinpeng is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Opposing Democracy in the Digital Age: the Yellow Shirts in Thailand (University of Michigan Press, 2021) and co-editor of From Grassroots Activism to Disinformation: Social Media in Southeast Asia(ISEAS, 2020). Her articles have appeared in journals including Journal of East Asian Studies, Media Culture and Society, and Pacific Affairs.

Saowanee Alexander is Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand. She studies Thai politics from linguistic perspectives. Her interests include street politics, ordinary people’s engagement in politics, and political resistance. Her articles have appeared in journals including Asia Policy, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Journal of Sociolinguistics, and South East Asia Research.

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University. She is the author of The Rise of the Octobrists in Contemporary Thailand: Power and Conflict among Former Left-wing Student Activists in Thai Politics (Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 2016), and From Handclappers to Whistle-Blowers: The Development and Dynamics of the Anti-Thaksin Movement (in Thai) (Nonthaburi: Illuminations Editions 2020).

Online via Zoom. Registration Required. Please register here for both days of the conference. A virtual reception via Zoom with the use of breakout rooms will follow the completion of the Day 1 of the conference.

This event is co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the New York Southeast Asia Network and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

Contact Information

Athina Fontenot