Thai protesters inspired by Hong Kong tactics in fight against the government

HONG KONG — This past weekend, Lalisa could not look away from her smartphone.

Clicking between Twitter, Instagram and secure messaging app Telegram, the 27-year-old who lives a comfortable, middle-class life in Bangkok was not consuming her usual online fare of South Korean actors and fashion. She was instead furiously joining newly established Telegram groups, telling her what to pack and where to assemble for yet another mass protest in defiance of Thailand’s military-linked government and monarchy. Most of the posts were from protesting guides of last year’s demonstrations in Hong Kong translated into Thai.

Anti-government protesters in Bangkok on Sunday, top, take cues from demonstrators in Hong Kong in July 2019, above. In both, protesters wear helmets and hold umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images)

“With guidance like this, it made it easier for me to prepare and just pack everything I need in one backpack,” she said, providing only her first name for fear of arrest. “We have learned from our previous experiences.”

Young, digitally savvy Thai protesters like Lalisa are at the forefront of a swelling anti-government movement that has broken the mold in Thailand — both by shattering the long-held taboo against criticizing the powerful monarchy, and by revolutionizing mass protests and dissent in the country.

Shedding the old strategy of occupying streets, which made them an easy target for police, demonstrators today have borrowed from their Hong Kong counterparts, subscribing to the “be water” strategy of fluid gatherings.

“This is the first time in Thai history that protesters are unpredictable, leaderless and moving like water,” said Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, secretary general of the Free Youth group, which organized the first anti-government protests. “Since the beginning, our group has wanted to be like the protesters in Hong Kong. They are the model for such a movement.”

The result so far has been harder for police to control, even in the context of Thailand’s long history of crackdowns on political movements. In recent days, police officers have privately admitted to being outmaneuvered, unable to arrest demonstrators en masse or prepare their crowd-control weapons ahead of time.

Police have “never experienced this before,” said a 21-year-old officer deployed to Bangkok, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the protests. “The protesters disappear even before we arrive; we cannot tackle the protests by using our old methods.”

Eluding authorities

Protests began this summer calling for greater democratic freedom in Thailand, reforms to the constitution and for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who won disputed elections last year after leading the army in a 2014 coup.

The movement began gaining even more momentum when student leaders took aim at the monarchy — once an untouchable subject in Thailand, which has some of the strictest lese-majeste laws in the world. They began speaking out about the monarchy’s deeply embedded place in politics and society and the wealth of King Vajiralongkorn.

On Thursday, the Thai government issued an emergency decree in an effort to end the protests, the first sign of a mounting crackdown against the movement. It only served to further galvanize the demonstrators, who gathered in the tens of thousands on Friday before they were dispersed by water cannons.

Pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on Sunday, top, and in Hong Kong in October 2019, above, use their phones as flashlights during a rally. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Lalisa was among the crowd gathered near the glitzy Siam Paragon mall on Friday. Admittedly a protest novice, she was settling in for a meal of fried chicken and burgers close to the front lines of the demonstration when a voice in the crowd shouted, “Run!”

Stuffing her laptop in her bag and stumbling in her rubber flip-flops, she dashed as far as she could, unclear about where she was even going.

“I thought in my head, ‘Are we running from bullets?’ ” Lalisa said. “All around me were students in uniform, running in fear, without knowing where they should go.”

Eventually Lalisa found a taxi, checked Twitter and realized they had narrowly escaped blue-dyed liquid shot from water cannons.

“I was horrified by all the photos coming up that day,” she said. “It made me feel afraid of joining the protests in future.”

Soon, a clearer strategy emerged, borrowed from counterparts in Hong Kong. By the next day, Telegram groups had started to take shape, some with more than 100,000 members. Collectively, they voted on where to gather and shared advice on what to bring, mirroring online discussions held in Hong Kong’s financial center last year.

Lalisa joined four such Telegram groups, and she ditched her laptop in favor of a backpack stuffed with goggles, masks, water bottles, an umbrella and a helmet.

When authorities shut the transit system, she took a taxi as far as she could go with friends and walked the rest of the way. She was overcome with emotion when she saw thousands of others there, many of them young demonstrators like her, participating in a political movement for the first time. When the crowds overwhelmed 4G connectivity, rendering apps useless, she switched to AirDrop to communicate.

Later that evening, upon hearing that water cannons were heading their way, Lalisa and her friends rushed to a nearby 7-Eleven, where shopkeepers gave them packs of bottled water free. The protesters took the bottles to a makeshift medical station nearby, where first responders and an ambulance were on standby, and then posted information on the supplies on the Telegram groups and on Instagram.

That time, however, the cannons never came.

“Maybe the police couldn’t plan their operation because of our flash-mob strategy,” she said.

‘It is now their time’

Hong Kong activists, meanwhile, took to social media over the weekend with declarations of solidarity with the Thai protesters, encouraging them to continue following the fluid style of demonstrations they had pioneered. Observers see cooperation between the two sides as part of a growing movement called the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a term coined by the demonstrators to reflect the shared commitment to democracy, a fondness for the brown-hued beverage and a deep suspicion of China.

There is now “open coordination between Hong Kong and Thailand, and a kind of ‘protest-sharing’ tactic,” said James Buchanan, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University International College.

Several prominent activists in Hong Kong, including Joshua Wong, protested at the Thai Consulate on Monday, Buchanan pointed out, and Thais are helping to coordinate a campaign online for 12 Hong Kong activists detained in mainland China while fleeing to Taiwan. A Thai activistencouraged people to tweet both the hashtags #save12hkyouths and #MilkTeaAlliance, so they would trend globally.

Protests since the weekend have begun to grow outside the capital, spreading to the strongholds of “red shirt” country — more rural areas where ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist style of politics still maintain huge support. Thaksin’s enduring popularity has destabilized Thai politics for decades, prompting pro-monarchy coups and sometimes bloody protests.

This time, there is no evidence he is behind the current demonstrations, which are led by a youth movement.

Prayuth, the prime minister, said Monday he had no plans to extend a state of emergency outside the capital.

Mayuree Fungfueng, 62, a core member of the “red shirt” network in the northern city of Chiang Mai, said she is proud of the young demonstrators’ resourcefulness. Her generation, she said, had “limited capacity and access to information.”

Protesters in Bangkok on Sunday, top, and in Hong Kong in July 2017, above, shelter under umbrellas. (Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

“We were the grass roots, and we had limited resources,” she said. “But the young people today can sustain themselves. They have resources and knowledge, so they can be their own leader.”

“The time of our red-shirt generation is over,” she added. “We will support them and back them up, but it is now their time.”

By : Shibani Mahtani and Paritta Wangkiat – The Washington Post

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