How Thai Activists Outsmarted the Generals

The regime tilted the playing field to its advantage, but it didn’t matter. Thailand’s opposition won with creativity, shrewd tactics, and a strategy that united the people. 

By Srdja Popovic and Steve Parks

May 2023

For the most ardent defenders of global democracy, recent days seems a disappointment: In Turkey’s elections on May 14—despite optimistic polling and the opposition’s solid, united campaign—the ruling party kept its parliamentary majority, and the increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, beat the opposition candidate by five percentage points. He is likely to prevail in the May 28 runoff.

But the overwhelming media focus on Turkey obscured a big win for democracy on the other side of the world. On the same day Turks went to the polls, Thailand’s opposition scored a thunderous success in that country’s election. The Thai opposition exceeded the most optimistic predictions, with the progressive Move Forward party winning an estimated 151 of the 500 seats in parliament, and another opposition party, Peu Thai, capturing 141 seats. The conservative ruling incumbent, United Thai Nation Party, meanwhile, won only 36 seats. For Thailand’s military junta, it was a colossal and unexpected loss.

So, as we read dozens of articles about what went wrong in Turkey, it is worth asking: How did the Thai opposition prevail on an equally tilted electoral field? What tactics did they deploy, and what lessons might they teach those resisting autocracy around the world?

Strategies of Resistance

Soon after seizing power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s military junta solidified its rule by rewriting the constitution. The regime hollowed out democracy enough to preserve the thinnest veneer of electoral legitimacy while ensuring it had the tools to make sure it keeps power. The junta’s “creative” solution was to add a senate, whose 250 seats are appointed by the military, to sit alongside the democratically elected 500-seat parliament. Since the prime minister needs a majority in both houses, the constitution effectively gives the military a 250-vote advantage.

In another move straight from the authoritarian playbook, the Thai government has heavily abused the legal system to target its critics. In late 2019, the regime trumped up charges to disband the second-largest opposition party, Future Forward, and to jail most of its leadership—spurring months of student protests. With that perceived threat neutralized, the Thai government, much like Russia’s and Turkey’s, passed a series of laws in 2021 to contain civil society—a typical antidemocratic move.

Thailand’s leadership also went to great lengths to tame and control social media in 2019 and 2020, introducing a set of sweeping online regulations under which any criticism can be labeled as “attacking the monarchy” or violating other poorly defined provisions. These regulations led to the prosecution of more than 250 young activists and opposition figures.

Despite these heavy blows, Thailand’s prodemocratic forces adapted and innovated to survive. As fast as dictators are learning from each other, their opponents are adapting to and outsmarting their attacks. Faced with the creeping authoritarianism of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in the leadup to the 2000 election, my (Srdja Popovic’s) movement, Otpor! (Resistance!), crafted a four-part response: 1) uniting the opposition, 2) mobilizing young voters, 3) training thirty-thousand election monitors to document and prevent electoral fraud, and 4) combining mass protests with a general strike to force Milošević to concede once he had lost. The Thai opposition not only employed all of these tactics, but they developed several of their own:

Recovering and regrouping. In the face of crackdowns, opposition parties came back stronger. The 2019 banning of the Future Forward party and jailing of its leadership led its MPs to form the Move Forward party under the leadership of the young and charismatic Pita Limjaroenrat. The other main opposition party, Pheu Thai, had seen two of its leaders—former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck—ousted from power, prosecuted, and exiled. After regrouping, the party benefited from the leadership of Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra. In both cases, government crackdowns backfired, sparking well-organized nationwide protests that shredded the regime’s popularity and inspired young Thais to enter politics.

Unifying. As the election date was set, opposition parties turned their attention to the question of unity, which is one of the primary elements of successful nonviolent movements. To broaden its appeal, the Thai opposition decided to run on two different tickets—as they correctly calculated that each party would appeal to very different parts of the electorate—but did so with the clear intention to form a united coalition after the elections. It worked out well, as the Move Forward party captured youth voters and large urban centers, while the more traditional Pheu Thai dominated rural and working-class areas in the country’s northeast. Only days after election, the two parties formed a governing coalition.

Bypassing censorship. Faced with a censored internet and the threat of prosecution for online criticism, the opposition behaved “like water” to find its way to millions. To stay at the top of news feeds while avoiding censorship, opposition figures disguised their online posts as nonpolitical. The most-watched video on Move Forward’s official TikTok account (with more than thirteen-million views), for instance, shows Pita demonstrating different uses of a traditional Thai loincloth. Move Forward also created a TikTok filter of him waving, which party backers can overlay onto their own videos to discreetly show their support. The party’s efforts worked miracles: Pita’s youthful image was ubiquitous on social media, and the government was unable to censor it.

Offline, the opposition adopted a guerilla-grassroots campaigning strategy, organizing thousands of small, low-risk events at local fairs and markets across the country. Its supporters also made creative use of the “Hunger Games” three-finger salute to identify and show solidarity with one another.

Joining forces with civil society and mobilizing youth. The 2020 protests in Thailand, sparked by the prohibition of the Future Forward Party, gave birth to a vivid and active youth NGO scene. For example, the Thai Youth Anti-Corruption Network mobilized students from more than ninety universities to use social-media platforms for sharing ideas, photos, and information about anticorruption campaigns. Their efforts were funded by on-campus coffee shops run by students. The opposition closely cooperated with Thailand’s NGOs to mobilize support beyond political parties, educate voters, and recruit and train thousands of election monitors, who were often accompanied by trained NGO activists while in the field. These efforts proved effective in not only preventing potential fraud, but also in mobilizing opposition-leaning but otherwise nonpartisan young people, who voted in historically unprecedented numbers.

These tactics played a critical role in helping the Thai opposition to prevail despite the government’s best efforts, and they may help other prodemocratic movements to challenge the world’s ever-growing band of autocrats. But we should never forget that strongmen in Turkey, Thailand, and beyond have repeatedly shown us that they don’t know how to accept defeat. Whether by manipulating election results, weaponizing courts against the opposition, or resorting to more extreme measures such as coups d’état (which have frequently occurred in Thailand), autocrats will do everything they can to hold on to power. Although the opposition has prevailed in Thailand, it remains to be seen if the political elite will allow them to govern. But one thing is clear above all: However hard the bad guys may try to crush democracy, they will never succeed as long as the opposition stays smart, creative, and one step ahead.

Srdja Popovic is founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and lecturer at Colorado College and the University of Virginia. He is author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (2015). His Twitter handle is @SrdjaPopovic. Steve Parks is professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he is also chair of the Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Democratic Futures Project. His Twitter handle is @StephenJParks.


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