Thai pro-democracy protestors have started to boycott big businesses deemed as pro-regime. While the sheer pervasiveness of these companies makes effective boycott difficult, it has not deterred protestors from exercising their power as consumers.
In Thailand, a relatively novel form of political protest has emerged – one that is aimed at rallying a comprehensive boycott of the big businesses that have propped up the Prayut Chan-ocha regime while seeking to empower “democracy-loving” businesses. This is being done by closely scrutinising the ties between the regime and the purveyors of popular retail goods and harnessing the power of social media to expose the presence of the politically well-connected entities behind the brands.
The movement built up as pro-democracy protestors became increasingly sensitised to the strong ties between Thai big businesses and the regime. The protestors were triggered by incidents such as the revelations made by the now-dissolved Future Forward Party in February 2020 that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s Foundation received donations from several big conglomerates in Thailand in return for concessions to government lands and projects. Another trigger for the youth and protestors was the controversy sparked when it was discovered that a field reporter from the much-vilified pro-government Nation TV had used a fake identity to interview pro-democracy protestors in Bangkok in August 2020.
Pro-democracy protestors started putting brands associated with the government and pro-state media on a boycott list while actively recommending “democracy-loving” substitutes in the market. This eventually led to the creation of a social media account called “No Sa-lim Shopping List” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in August 2020. (“Sa-lim” is Thai political slang for those who support the current government and the monarchy as an institution.) The list consists of both big conglomerates and smaller companies that were perceived as pro-regime. The campaign has gone viral on social media – attracting almost 80,000 followers on Twitter, 40,000 on Facebook, and 2,000 on Instagram.
The “No Sa-lim Shopping List” is administered by a group of pro-democracy protestors who are motivated to show consumers that their purchasing power matters. The team conducts open-source research to verify the political stances, political exposure, and corporate social responsibility profiles of manufacturers, importers, and sellers of various retail goods. The team then publishes the list of sa-lim firms’ and democracy-loving firms’ products, ranging from everyday goods, such as cleaning supplies and cooking ingredients, to many others. The political links of businesses in the service industry, such as restaurant chains, banks, and hotels, are also scrutinised. Updated every few months, the list currently includes the financial sponsors of TOP NEWS (a pro-regime news agency), such as restaurants under the MK Restaurant Group and S&P Syndicate, Sappe health drink, “Silver Pin” rice, and Care Beau shampoo.
A demonstration of that power was recently demonstrated when Foodpanda Thailand lost almost two million active users within a week after incurring protestors’ ire for insinuating that protestors were partaking in acts of violence and terrorism.
The team also aims to support small businesses through another campaign called #avoid711everyWednesday. This campaign encourages civil society to not purchase from 7-Eleven, the biggest convenience store chain in Thailand with over 12,000 branches nationwide, at least once a week. 7-Eleven operators in Thailand are franchisees of CP ALL – part of Thailand’s largest conglomerate, the Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group. CP has a wide range of businesses, including agro-industry and food, retail and distribution, media and telecommunications, e-commerce and digital, property development, automotive and industrial products, pharmaceuticals, and finance and investment.
Besides protesting against big business support for the government and monarchy, Thai pro-democracy protestors have also taken issue with CP’s dominance in several sectors in Thailand – primarily food, agribusiness, retail, and wholesale – has been a sore point for protestors. In November 2020, the Thai Office of Trade Competition Commission (OTCC) approved CP’s acquisition of Tesco Lotus, a huge hypermarket chain. The Foundations for Consumers has filed a lawsuit against OTCC’s decision as the acquisition of Tesco Lotus would result in CP monopolising the wholesale and retail sectors, with its market share reaching almost 85 per cent. The case is currently under investigation by Thailand’s Administrative Court.
However, given the sheer dominance and pervasiveness of the large conglomerates in Thailand’s economy, the effectiveness of the “No Sa-lim” movement faces significant hindrances. Even as the protestors seek to rally support for small businesses, the small shop owners themselves have to buy goods at wholesale from larger stores. One of the biggest wholesale businesses in Thailand – Makro – is also owned by CP. Furthermore, shop owners are more likely to choose to stock the most recognised brands or opt for the most cost-effective options instead of taking up the potentially more expensive options recommended by the boycott campaigns. Thus, while some benefits of the anti-sa-lim protests go to small businesses, it is practically impossible to avoid doing business with Thailand’s giant firms.
But for the protestors, what matters is promoting awareness that political change in Thailand also requires restructuring of the country’s political economy. Alongside explicitly political gestures, Thai protestors have creatively used their power as consumers to resist Thai elite power. A demonstration of that power was recently demonstrated when Foodpanda Thailand lost almost two million active users within a week after incurring protestors’ ire for insinuating that protestors were partaking in acts of violence and terrorism. In the context of a still-raging Covid-19 pandemic, the power of social media has enabled protestors to continue to wage their battles online.
Wichuta Teeratanabodee was research intern at the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.