Thai protesters defiantly throw up a three-finger salute, their demonstrations part of a regional pattern of instability. The World Bank terms it a "third shock," coming on the heels of both the pandemic and the cost of containing it. © Getty Images BANGKOK/PHNOM PENH — Something changed in the tone of the protests sweeping Thailand when police on Friday turned water cannons on youthful activists in central Bangkok. The confrontation was at a rain-soaked intersection, only meters away from the spot where, a decade earlier, security forces had shot and killed scores of anti-government protesters.

The crowd on this stormy Oct. 16 night represented a new generation of activists taking on the ultimate taboo subject: the immense power and wealth of the Thai monarchy. They are led by students, many of them of high-school age, and tonight they were determined to stand their ground. Ploy, a 19-year-old university student, and her two friends braced themselves as jets of blue-tinged liquid hit the crowd.

"It stung. We knew then that they’d gone too far, that we cannot let them get away with this," she said.

The protesters, unfazed, formed umbrella chains and flashed three-finger salutes, a symbol of defiance drawn from "The Hunger Games" film series. Some supporters on the overpass above dropped umbrellas to the crowd. The young activists had gathered despite a new emergency decree banning gatherings of five or more people, determined to press their demands for reform and to voice anger at the arrest of more than 20 protest leaders, mostly students, earlier that week.

The demonstrations — calling for the resignation of the prime minister, a new constitution and reform of the monarchy — have steadily intensified, even as the country remains closed to international tourism amid concerns about COVID-19. The latest rallies have drawn tens of thousands of people to locations around the country, as a wave of sympathy grows for the young protesters along with anger at government tactics. Protests have intensified in Bangkok and elsewhere around the country. "The Thai government has created its own human rights crisis," said Human Rights Watch. © Getty Images Immediately after the water cannon attack, three of the top 10 hashtags trending worldwide on social media were about Thailand’s turmoil, many prompted by protesters’ complaints that the water fired from the cannons was laced with stinging chemicals. Swift denials by police failed to stem condemnation from domestic and international critics, including human rights groups and student bodies.

"The Thai government has created its own human rights crisis," said Human Rights Watch. "Criminalizing peaceful protests and calls for political reform is a hallmark of authoritarian rule."

An outpouring of international support and sympathy has further energized the young protesters. "Whatever happens next, we’ve already won. We’ve forced the government to take us seriously, we’ve broken the taboo of discussing the monarchy," said Ploy. "This can’t go away, it can’t go backwards."

Fresh moves by the government to censor Thai media in recent days have also backfired, fueling further criticism and a growing backlash against the country’s unpopular monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Street graffiti has recently appeared proclaiming the "Republic of Thailand" — unthinkable even six months ago. But today, the authorities seem powerless to counter the anti-monarchy tide. Thailand has emerged as a "COVID-19 star" in holding down case numbers — but its tourism-reliant economy has also suffered among the worst. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca) Standing amid the roaring, densely packed protest crowds, it is hard to imagine that just half a year ago, Bangkok’s major thoroughfares were silent and empty amid a deep lockdown, the population more fearful of the COVID-19 pandemic than political repression.

COVID-19 and economic hardships have barely figured in the fiery speeches and social media posts of the Thai protest movement. The main issues are political change, democratization and burning anger at the actions of the politicians and military, and displays of royal wealth that now saturate an emboldened local media. Yet, the catalyst has undoubtedly been the long period of lockdown and antivirus measures, resulting in deepening economic gloom, soaring poverty and a growing sense of hopelessness among the 520,000 students who will graduate from Thai universities in coming weeks. A recent survey showed that as many as 80% of them have no clear idea of the jobs they might land after graduation.

Ironically, the swelling street demonstrations are also the result of one of the government’s signature successes: The young protesters are not afraid of COVID-19. They know that the government has earned international praise for its management of the pandemic. Thailand has been described as one of the world’s "COVID-19 stars," with less than 60 deaths and barely 3,700 cases as of Oct. 20.

But with its tourism-reliant economy collapsing and economic contraction of more than 10% forecast this year, it has also emerged as one of Asia’s biggest economic losers. Thailand is a "victim of its own success" in warding off the coronavirus, said the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Michael DeSombre. Summing up the government’s dilemma, he said the country must find a balance between addressing urgent economic needs and virus prevention.

The economic fallout has highlighted Thailand’s ranking as one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to Credit Suisse’s 2018 "Global Wealth Report," the richest 1% in Thailand controlled almost 67% of the country’s wealth.

Since 2017, the wealthiest person in Thailand has been the king, who transferred crown property assets into his name following the death of his father King Rama IX a year earlier. Estimates for the vast portfolio of property and shareholdings range from $40 billion to $70 billion. That fact has not been lost on the protesters who are defiantly breaking harsh laws against criticism of the royal family.

As politics, economics and social dislocation converge in the escalating protests, Thailand stands as a cautionary tale for the region despite its outstanding public health record. Just as the country is struggling to restore investor confidence, reopen to tourism, rescue failing businesses and support its swelling population of the poor, doubts are being cast on its stability and security.

Low cases, high cost

Southeast Asian governments have become painfully aware of the trade-offs between fighting the pandemic and shoring up their flailing economies. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 they have experimented with mixed success in re-opening their economies in the absence of an effective vaccine. In Thailand, the closure of borders helped ward off the virus even as it now ravages neighboring Myanmar and prompts fresh lockdowns in the Philippines and Indonesia. But Thailand has paid a high price for its public health success.

Within Southeast Asia, the World Bank’s growth forecasts for individual countries contain some grim "low case" estimates. Thailand is the worst hit economy with an estimated 10.4% contraction, followed by the Philippines (-9.9%) and Malaysia (-6.1%).

Unlike its main trading partners, China, the U.S. and the EU, Southeast Asia’s reliance on external markets has made it more vulnerable to the "triple shock" of COVID-19: the pandemic itself, the economic impact of containment measures and reverberations from the global recession. Royal Thai Army soldiers move through Bangkok to sanitize the city in March, passing a portrait of the king. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) The good news for Southeast […]