Recent developments on Thai social media underscore a growing shift in sentiments in segments of the Thai pro-democracy movement. Instead of pressing for political change, they have displayed a growing — and worrying — sense of hopelessness.
A recent trend has emerged in Thai society – youths signalling their intention to move abroad. Throughout May 2021, the hashtag #letsmoveout trended on Thai social media. It has been mainly used by members of the new Facebook group called “Let’s Move out of the Country”, a group with over a million members currently. This group provides disgruntled Thais with a virtual platform to meet, share their experiences, and ask questions about moving abroad. This underscores the growing sense of hopelessness among the younger generation in Thailand.
While there are many other online communities with a similar focus, this group is unique because its popularity has become inextricably linked with anger and disapproval of the current Thai government.
The group’s founder, a 29-year-old entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry, created the platform to find solutions for his businesses. Since the third wave of COVID-19 hit Thailand in mid-April, his businesses have been sharply affected due to, in his words, the “poor management” of the Thai government. Restrictions were abruptly imposed on public places, including restaurants, without any compensation for business owners. Faced with this situation, the group founder thought that he needed to find ways to move some of his businesses abroad.
Apart from the perceived inadequate governmental responses toward the COVID-19 pandemic, some group members also cited their lack of confidence in the impartiality of the country’s legal system. Throughout March and April, the Thai court repeatedly denied bail for pro-democracy protestors, some of which were on hunger strike for over a month. The group founder, who has chosen to remain anonymous, said this incident was one of the “last straws”, as it showed that even legal institutions were not supporting the people.
His anger seems to be shared by many others, especially youths. Within two days, the group attracted over 500,000 members and reached over 1 million by the end of May. This rapid growth made the founder “shocked but can empathise” with other members.
The founder stated that he had formed the group for practical information-sharing without intending to “take political jabs”, making this group different from other political movements in Thailand. Conversations in the group centres on four topics – preparation and visa application, reviewing countries, career advice and language learning. These hashtags make it convenient for users to find information. Nevertheless, the conversation within the group unavoidably involved discussions surrounding Thai politics and resentment towards the current government – as per other political youth movements in Thailand. Some see it as profoundly interconnected to the recent wave of protests which have rocked the kingdom. Anthropology professor Dr Yukti Mukdawijitra speculated that at least 80 per cent of the group members are those who have attended political rallies.
The group’s popularity and active political discussions led to a tussle with the Thai authorities. The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (DES) claimed that the group’s activities seemed to border on “disgracing the (royal) institution”, and generated hatred and disharmony. The Ministry said it would further monitor and investigate the content of the Facebook group.
Despite the shot across their bow, the group responded sarcastically by changing its name to “Let’s move and shake our hips”. The group’s description was also changed from the four categories of posts to “Let’s move and shake our hips. This group is a group for exercising – only to move the hips and flatten your belly”. Nevertheless, the content and discussion topics remained unchanged, showing how the group refused to be cowed by the government’s actions.
Despite the shot across their bow, the group responded sarcastically by changing its name to “Let’s move and shake our hips”.
On 18 May the group disappeared from Facebook as a result of being reported by other Facebook users too many times. It, however, returned after just three hours. A Facebook investigation concluded that it did not violate Facebook’s community guidelines or any laws. This incident did not surprise the group administrators at all. “We have brought attention to how other developed countries take care of their people, and this harms their legitimacy”, said the group administrator, taking jabs at the Thai government.
However, unlike on-street protests or some previous online campaigns that reflected a desire for change, the formation of this Facebook group instead signals a sense of hopelessness towards the unequal power structure and poor governmental management. Many Thais, especially youths, are expressing that the changes they desire are beyond their reach, and therefore are considering leaving the country. In a Clubhouse session, hosted by VOICE TV Thailand, the #letsmoveout group founder stated that “we know that no matter how much we try to voice our opinions, the government will never account for any of those … we have lost many things, including lives, along the way”.
While the issue has not created any apparent impacts on the international level, it has caught the attention of some embassies, including those of Sweden and Australia. Three days after the group was created, the Swedish Embassy published a post on its Facebook page, inviting Thai people to consider Sweden as a potential relocation destination. The post highlighted that Sweden values equality, a comprehensive welfare system and innovation, which attracted attention from many #letsmoveout group members.
The number of group members might not represent the majority of Thai youths, but the conversation on the practical aspect of relocation shows that they are serious about moving abroad. This is an alarming issue that if not paid attention to, might lead the government to face critical circumstances. If the government continues to ignore ways to restore the sense of hope in Thai society, it would either lead to a generational brain drain or spark even more anger on the ground. Needless to say, such scenarios would not be favourable to the government or the kingdom at large.
Wichuta Teeratanabodee was research intern at the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.