A grassroots initiative called the Ratsadornprasong Fund has been created to shoulder the financial burden of bail and legal support for arrested protestors. The millions of baht raised in support of the fund is emblematic of the anti-establishment movement’s mass support in Thailand.
Challenged by youth-led protests in 2020, the Thai establishment in 2021 systematically launched a ‘strike back’, primarily through lawfare — that is, using legal instruments to quell the protests. Between July 2020 and the end of 2021, authorities charged at least 1,747 people using a litany of anti-dissent legislation. A bulk of these charges occurred in 2021, when a total of 1,513 people were charged. The charges include violations of the Emergency Decree, lèse majesté, and sedition. The likely purpose of these charges was to discourage the protests. Far from discouraging dissent, the Ratsadornprasong fund was established to support those facing charges for their involvement in protests.
The name Ratsadornprasong means ‘the people’s will’ and is traced back to Arnon Nampa’s Ratsadornprasong Law Office, a pro bono law practice that was set up to provide legal aid to red-shirt protestors back in 2011. The need for such a grassroots-initiated fund stems from the lack of recourse protestors have to official sources of legal aid. For instance, there is an official Justice Fund set up by the Ministry of Justice in 2006, aimed at providing bail support and legal aid for those with little financial resources. However, as the cases involving dissidents are deemed to be ‘contrary to public order’, they have no access to the official fund.
The Ratsadornprasong fund was established in January 2021 by a university professor and public intellectual. People who wish to support the fund can transfer money to a bank account held by them (disclosure: the professor is the spouse of the author). In the past year, the fund was able to raise up to 45.9 million baht (approximately US$1.4 million), and it was primarily used to bail out people charged in protest-related cases, as well as pay for any associated fines and damages related to protest activities.
Although the fund raised a considerably large sum of money, most donations came in small denominations. This means the fund has a wide and broad base of support. In a statement, one of the fund’s bank account holders confirmed that most transfers were sums of two or three figures. Supporters would also often donate amounts that were politically symbolic — 112 baht for Article 112 (the lèse majesté law) or 2,475 baht for the June 24, B.E. 2475 Revolution that toppled the Thai absolute monarchy. Transfers take place on an ad-hoc basis, but they increase sharply when urgently needed. The arrest of 90 protesters after the crack-down on the ‘Thalu Fa Village’ on March 28, 2021 is a case in point. Police arrested protestors at the ‘village’ — a protest site set up near Government House — and charged them for violations of the Emergency Decree and the Communicable Diseases Act.
After the arrests, the fund called for contributions via its Facebook page as there was not enough to bail out all those detained. In the end, total collections surpassed expectations. Before midnight, there were 3,848 transfers to the fund. At its peak, more than 100 transfers arrived every minute — 148 transfers at 9.49pm and 111 transfers at 9.50pm. Many of these donations similarly came in amounts that were politically symbolic — for example, 112, 212 (a play on 112), 24.75, or 247.50 baht. The fund managed to raise 6 million baht in three days — more than triple the required total bail amount of 1.76 million baht.
Government prosecutions of dissidents have yielded unintended consequences. Rather than creating fear and leading to deterrence, they have generated further discontent amongst dissidents.
The fund has become ever more crucial as the number of arrests increased. Many of those arrested, such as the participants in the ‘Thalu Gas’ protests (a separate set of protests distinct from the one at Thalu Fa Village), are poor. Some dissidents regard their donations to the Ratsadornprasong Fund as a means to support the anti-establishment movement. One dissident told the author that ‘The government’s Justice Fund doesn’t help the dissidents, so we need to help each other. I donate 500 baht to the Ratsadornprasong Fund every month because (the) kids have sacrificed themselves for us a lot’. Another dissident said that she had joined ‘pro-democracy’ gatherings since the time of the Red Shirts, and continued to do so during the youth-led gatherings that began in 2020. However, as there have recently not been many gatherings, she donates money to the Ratsadornprasong Fund because ‘it is the only way that [she] can continue the protests’.
Government prosecutions of dissidents have yielded unintended consequences. Rather than creating fear and deterrence, they have generated further discontent amongst dissidents. The arrests have also worked to galvanise support for the anti-establishment movement from the general public, with the Ratsadornprasong Fund providing a means for ordinary citizens to express their support for the protestors.
Unintended consequences notwithstanding, the Thai establishment has only pushed its strategy of lawfare harder. Dissidents have been charged with more severe offences, carrying harsher penalties and requiring higher bail. According to one of the fund’s bank account holders, there are growing suspicions that the Revenue Department will investigate the fund or freeze the account entirely. There is also an ongoing ‘Information Operation’ aimed at discrediting the dissidents and supporters of the fund. But transfers are constantly made, and the fund’s founders remain strongly determined. Even if the fund is shut down, there is a high possibility that new grassroots initiatives will take its place. The battle continues.
Anusorn Unno is Associate Professor, Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, Bangkok.