Ahead of Thai election, fed-up youth still hope for change they probably won't get
A Thai schoolgirl walks into a classroom. She wears the standard uniform of a white shirt and dark skirt, but something is not right. Her hands are covered in tattoos, bright-red highlights streak through her jet-black hair. On the walls are posters of missing student activists.
When a seedy male teacher with glowing eyes scolds her, a third eye forms on her forehead as she transforms into a fire-breathing naga, a powerful mythological creature that most Thais believe really exists. She sings:
Jump off my Bangkok! Get off my Bangkok!
The music video, by the 30-year-old Thai singer-songwriter Pyra, is a tribute to the defiance and frustrations of an entire generation of young people, fed up with an ossified establishment, dominated by the military and the monarchy, that just won’t let go of power.
With elections coming up Sunday, few are optimistic that the vote will put the so-called Land of Smiles on a happier path after years of political upheaval and economic stagnation.
Three years ago, Pyra, whose real name is Peeralada Sukawat, was one of tens of thousands of young Thais who took to the streets to demand change in the biggest youth-led rallies Thailand has ever seen.
The protests rocked Thai politics because the students wanted nothing short of pro-democracy regime change: a new government, a fresh constitution that gave non-soldiers a chance at real power, and limits on the power of the king — until then a taboo topic in a country with some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world.
"They want to see a progressive Thailand," says Janjira Soombatponsiri, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "They want to see equality, they want to see a welfare state. They want to see all things that are so unfamiliar to the older generation."
The crackdown was brutal. Hundreds of the protesters are now behind bars, many serving lengthy jail terms for sedition or offending the monarchy. Those who remain free are mostly too scared to speak out — even online, where royalist trolls target anyone who dares criticize the military or the monarchy.
A year ago, Pyra moved to London for more freedom to express herself through her music, which she defines as “dystopian pop.” She’s glad to be away from the Orwellian repression that she believes youth in her homeland now live under.
"I left because censorship is not good for my job as an artist," she says. "I need to be able to think outside the box, run around like the world [is] your playground. You cannot be limited by a box created by the government."
The fallout from the 2020-2021 protests hangs like a shadow over the May 14 election, in which pro-democracy opposition forces will compete against a ruling coalition of parties that are backed by the army and loyal to the king. Although the opposition is leading in the polls by a wide margin, even a landslide victory wouldn’t guarantee a path to power.
The current government is headed by PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, a now-retired general who as army chief staged a coup in 2014. Two years later, his junta rewrote the constitution to make it almost impossible to form a government that the army doesn’t like.
Under the current rules, the army appoints nearly all 250 of Thailand’s senators, who elect the prime minister along with 500 popularly elected MPs. No surprise then that in the last election in 2019, Prayuth was able to keep his job despite the opposition winning way more seats than his party.
The math is simple: Just to have a shot at the premiership, a pro-democracy party needs to get three times as many MPs elected as a party supported by the men in uniform in the upper chamber.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, the opposition hopes that young voters will still turn out in high enough numbers to deliver a resounding victory that the generals can’t undo. The kids may not be all right, but they are — at least potentially — a huge part of the electoral equation this Sunday.
For the first time ever, Thais aged 18-25 could be a larger voting bloc than seniors, who overwhelmingly support the army and the crown. That gives first-time voters unprecedented attention by those vowing to unseat the generals.
Five years ago, young people came out in droves to vote for the upstart Future Forward party, which promised to clip the army's power, decentralize the bureaucracy, and tackle inequality. It shocked the political class by coming in third, but a year later the party was disqualified for violating campaign finance laws.
The progressives have now rebranded as Move Forward, following the Thai electoral politics playbook: If you get dissolved, just change your party name and run again!
Another contender is Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who recently announced he would soon return to Thailand after 17 years in self-imposed "exile" (Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008, two years after being deposed in a coup, and faces up to a decade in jail for a slew of charges he claims were politically motivated).
But despite her youth — at 36, Paetongtarn would be Thailand’s youngest PM ever — she isn’t connecting well with younger voters. Many probably wonder if she’s just an empty vessel for her dad, as her aunt Yingluck was often perceived as before she too was ousted in 2014 by Prayuth and his buddies.
(Not-so-fun fact: Thailand has seen more successful coups, 13, than any other country since World War II.)
Still, why should Gen Zers vote for parties that treated the protesters like spoiled brats? "The political establishment has done nothing for the young people that risked their lives and spent time in jail," says Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer and expert on Thai politics at the University of Sydney.
She also recalls how some politicians showed their true colors with patronizing and sexist comments lobbed at female protesters, like "Why don't you stay home and help your mom wash the dishes instead of coming out and talk stuff?” or “You need to be a good girl, so stay home and off Twitter."
For Sinpeng, many of the protesters showed they had more guts then the opposition parties now wooing their generation for votes.
"These young people were not telling their parents they're going to the protests. They understood that their involvement can rip their families apart because they were going against their parent's wishes," she explains. "But they did it anyway, and that takes courage in a country like Thailand, where you can have real consequences for just standing by and saying nothing."
(By that Sinpeng means being a witness to but not reporting lèse-majesté, which believe it or not is the same crime as insulting the king yourself under the Thai criminal code.)
At the heart of the youth disillusionment is a deep generational divide in Thailand, says Soombatponsiri.
"Young people see Thailand in a completely different light. They question the notion of the Thai nation, what they've learned in school about Thai history and Thai identity," she adds. For its part, the royalist establishment is pushing back by glorifying the army and the king as well as portraying the youth as angry and privileged.
"Within the younger generation, there is that fire to overthrow the older generation," she says. "Change is just a matter of time, but it's [only] gonna happen after the older generation dies out."