Despite arrests and crackdowns on peaceful protests, young people in Thailand continue to fight for democracy on the streets and online. This time, they’re not battling for themselves but for their friends in Myanmar.
After learning about the military coup d’état in Myanmar on February 1, Thai youth have shown their support for anti-coup protesters by organizing and joining a series of protests in Bangkok and other provinces. They’ve sent messages of solidarity on social media and welcomed Myanmar to the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a transnational Asian pro-democracy movement, denouncing the military junta.
But this has not always been the case. For generations, many Thais regarded Myanmar as an enemy or adversary.
Growing up in Chonburi province, I remember learning about the Burmese-Siamese war and the fall of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767. In social-studies class, Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, was described as a “city destroyer.”
During the spread of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, racist and anti-migrant comments hit hard on social media, resurrecting this history.
“If the Myanmar people successfully smuggle into town and spread the disease,” one post read, “it is as if we would lose the city for the third time.” Another read: “Myanmar people are around us. They are spreading germs.”
So what changed young Thai people’s minds?
For one, everyday interactions between Thais and the Myanmar people make them feel closer to each other. For decades, Myanmar people immigrated from their country to work in Thailand. According to official Thai government figures, more than 2.5 million Myanmar migrant workers are residing in Thailand.
Thais have learned about Myanmar people in their everyday lives rather than solely from state-developed propaganda textbooks in social-studies classes.
“Actually, Myanmar people are good,” a Thai protester told me last week. “I have to be here to support them because we want genuine democracy.”
Access to the Internet has also enabled Thais to learn and stay connected. School is not the only place for the younger generations to study. With a simple tablet or smartphone and an Internet connection, young people have access to sources of knowledge that were previously inaccessible. They learn about global issues with different narratives and interact “directly” with people from other countries.
Not only that, the advance of technology allows them to show their support for one another on social media, hence the hashtag #StandWithMyanmar. Some Thai student-led groups even sent an open letter of solidarity, demanding that the Myanmar military “unconditionally release all those currently arbitrarily detained and immediately restore the Internet and all forms of communication.”
Last, they feel the same pain. Military dictatorships are not new to the people of Southeast Asia.
Myanmar was under direct military rule for almost five decades, from 1962 to 2011, and Thailand has been witness to 13 military coups d’état since 1932, with the most recent in 2014. Myanmar and Thai people know what it’s like to live under oppression and military dictatorship. We understand each other.
Even in recent months, we faced similar crackdowns in Thailand, including arbitrary arrests and the use of high-pressure water cannons against peaceful pro-democracy protesters.
When pro-democracy groups learned about the Myanmar coup on February 1, they organized the protest in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok on the same day to denounce the coup and call on the military to release government officials and activists.
The times have changed. We will not tolerate military oppression, whether it’s in the streets of Bangkok or Yangon. Thai youth are rejecting the tired anti-Myanmar propaganda they learned in school and are opting instead for transnational unity. We can all learn something from them.