Populations and Politics: The Demography of Thai Student Protests
Demographic factors are driving Thailand’s current political protests. They will be hard to quell without major political reforms.
On 19 September, an estimated 30,000 protesters staged a public demonstration in Bangkok, which lasted overnight despite the rain. The protest was the largest since a military coup toppled Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government in 2014. This largest protest is part of the wave of protests that have been gaining momentum since the March 2019 elections which saw the junta-linked Palang Pracharath Party form the government under conditions that have been widely criticised as undemocratic.
Political protests involving university students in Thailand’s history are not uncommon. What is unprecedented this time is the significant presence of much younger Thais such as high school students, in addition to university students as part of a nationwide coordinated network. In addition, a growing number of student activists and leaders are young women. Perhaps most startling to some observers has been the protestors’ ten-point manifesto calling for reforms to the role of the monarchy, in clear defiance of harsh lese majeste laws that discourage any open criticism of the Thai royal family.
Explanations for these recent protests link them to growing political dissatisfaction towards the Palang Pracharath government since 2014 and their attempts at silencing critics and political opponents. One significant example has been the weaponising of the legal system that led to the dissolution of the now defunct Future Forward Partythat was particularly popular among the urban youth.
More recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic has crippled Thailand’s tourism industry which accounts for close to a fifth of the country’s economy. Thailand’s GDP is predicted to decline by 8 per cent this year despite the country’s relative success in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. This has inevitably aggravated the existing divisions between the rich and the poor, underlining Thailand’s position of having the greatest level of income inequality in ASEAN.
However, there is one other equally important factor that needs to be understood; political demography’s contributions to the events leading to the 19 September protest and likely similar events in future. The growing presence of far younger student protesters, which now include in their ranks a higher proportion of women, reflect a critical stage in Thailand’s demographic shift into an ageing society over the last three decades. Persons from age of 15 to 54 now form the largest group in the country, accounting for up to 60 per cent of the country’s population.
In this age of globalised social media, recent revelations of the current monarch’s preferred choice of home in Germany in the midst of a national crisis, along with the appointment of a royal consort on top of having a queen may have alienated many younger Thais.
Within this particular group, those who fall into the age range of 15-29 account for nearly 20 per cent of the total population. Along a demographic continuum, they represent what demographers refer to as a “youth bulge” in the population that is often linked to periods of political unrest in societies. Many from this age range have grown up in a time when the significance and prestige of the monarchy has been marred by stronger memories of military coups, polemical color-coded politics, and an ailing monarch who was increasingly less visible in the decade prior to his passing in 2016.
In this age of globalised social media, recent revelations of the current monarch’s preferred choice of home in Germany in the midst of a national crisis, along with the appointment of a royal consort on top of having a queen may have alienated many younger Thais. Political demographers posit that Thailand’s lowering fertility correlates with more critical views of patriarchal practices and growing democratisation.
Thai youths of today are largely the offspring of members of an earlier and larger “youth bulge” from the 1970s to the early 1990s who were participants in their own politically turbulent events such as the 6 October event of 1976, right until the ‘Black May’ Incident of 1992. Now though, instead of benefitting from the demographic dividend as a result of lowering fertility over more than three decades, mature working Thais face a reeling economy. The World Bank has estimated that the number of economically insecure persons will double from 4.7 million to 9.7 million (about one in seven Thais) in 2020.
The familiar claim that “demography is destiny” can be hyperbolic and need not always be true. However, in the case of Thailand’s recent protests, there is a remarkable linkage to demographic trends, in addition to other factors commonly cited by others.
Policymakers should be asking what can be done to prevent further conflicts. The answer lies more in what should not be done. The lessons from Thailand’s flawed democracy are apparent enough. The political realities of its demographic shift are best addressed by reducing the levels of authoritarianism, allowing greater transparency, and rethinking government’s reliance on military elites and other forms of cronyism.
Thai politics is not only a game of numbers. It is also a matter of time.
Kevin S.Y. Tan was a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.