ON MOST WEEKENDS this August convoys of thousands of horn-tooting cars and motorcycles have descended on Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, and on provincial cities. These “car mob” rallies defy a ban on gatherings instituted by the country’s army-led government. The ban is supposedly aimed at controlling the pandemic. But the political dimension is unmistakable.
Among other things, the car-borne protesters want the resignation of the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who led a coup that overturned a civilian government in 2014. Last year Mr Prayuth contemptuously dismissed student demonstrators making the same demand. More boldly, the students took aim at the wealth and powers of the monarchy. The government seems to have expected that the use of draconian laws to arrest the student leaders would end the protests. Instead the anti-government movement has mutated, infecting new groups of Thais. The rallies in Bangkok include Range Rovers and other luxury cars owned by members of the monied elites who typically back the establishment that Mr Prayuth represents.
The underlying complaint is the government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Thais proud of their country’s relative prosperity have been shocked by pictures of people dying in the streets. One reason for this is that an obscure drug firm which got a government mandate to manufacture 200m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine has failed to meet its targets. But it is taboo for Thais to criticise that mistake, since the company belongs to King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Chinese-made vaccines, meanwhile, inspire little trust. As a consequence, just 8% of Thais are fully vaccinated—far short of the 70% that is the target for the end of the year. Last year Thailand did well in holding the virus at bay. Now the Delta variant is ripping through society, with 20,000 infections a day and deaths rising. For the less well-off, especially the young, economic prospects are dimming. Yet even the well-connected are not guaranteed a hospital bed or a vaccine. That helps explain why some of members of the elite are turning on Mr Prayuth.
The prime minister’s authoritarian response to dissent has had perverse consequences. The dozens of protest leaders who were arrested under sedition and lèse-majesté laws had overwhelmingly advocated non-violence. Their absence has emboldened more confrontational demonstrators. In recent weeks Bangkok’s streets have filled with tear gas and rubber bullets as riot police face off against protesters throwing eggs, tomatoes and, on occasion, rocks. Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University argues that Mr Prayuth’s refusal to communicate with the younger generation makes things more dangerous.
Meanwhile, in early August Thailand’s usually docile courts issued a temporary injunction against Mr Prayuth’s media gag-order. That had barred anyone from reporting news that might “frighten” people, “cause a misunderstanding” or affect “state security, order or good morality”. The government backed down and withdrew the order.
Mr Prayuth’s enemies scent blood. Even on the pro-government side some want a new prime minister; they might claim that Mr Prayuth’s media gag breached the constitution. Among the opposition, leaders from an older generation of politicians (the so-called “red shirts” who backed Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister whom the army deposed in 2006) are making common cause with younger protesters. Mr Thaksin himself is attempting to connect with them from exile via weekly sessions on Clubhouse, a social-media app.
But the country has moved on since Mr Thaksin’s day. Many young Thais see the king as a fatuous martinet and are much readier than Mr Thaksin to take aim at his powers. The intrigues of the older generation are over, says Frank Netiwit, a leader of the student protests. Politics, Mr Netiwit argues, is opening “a new battlefield”.
For all that, it is one in which the king holds the key ground. Little suggests he has lost faith in his prime minister. The king may not be around to face down the protesters himself—he is preparing to return to his preferred residence in Bavaria—but he is assumed to have authorised Mr Prayuth to act as harshly as needed to crush the movement. The establishment may win the battle for control of the streets. Yet in the longer war, it has already lost the battle for the younger generation’s minds.
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The beeping pandemic”