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How Repression (and Protest) Gets Repeated

We can learn a lot about the crackdown in Hong Kong if we compare it to Thailand—and vice versa. Autocrats and activists are learning in real time.

By Wichuta Teeratanabodee and Jeffrey Wasserstrom

 January 2024

After months of intense protests, authorities introduced draconian new antisubversion laws and began to vigorously enforce related legislation already on the books. The government banned most public gatherings in the bustling Asian business hub and tourist mecca and criminalized displaying symbols of political resistance and discussing taboo topics. Academics and activists began fleeing what was once considered a “liberal haven in Asia.” And although an election was held, “campaigning against” the officially desired result had been outlawed.

In the words of one critic, “Double-speak has become a common practice camouflaging the harshness of repression.” Authorities were using “terms such as ‘attitude adjustment’” to mask the cruelty of a harsh system of “arbitrary detention” and intimidation. Meanwhile, the government introduced twelve core values through educational drives promoting patriotism. And it launched a “happiness campaign,” to the tune of an upbeat soundtrack, aimed both at luring back tourists and convincing locals that all was well again in the city—even if they were now living under an increasingly autocratic rule.

If you have been following events in Hong Kong, you might have thought these passages were describing what has been happening there since Beijing imposed the National Security Law in 2020. But they’re actually about Bangkok in the mid-2010s. We know that autocrats across the globe have been learning from each other and cobbling together eclectic mix-and-match strategies to harass and hinder opponents. Just as activists are often keenly aware of what their counterparts in a neighborhood are up to, autocrats are aware of the tactics and models of other authoritarians next door, even if they might not formally communicate or coordinate, and even if they do not subscribe to the same ideologies. Today, for example, we see a “Happy Hong Kong” campaign, but this was pre-dated by Thailand’s postcoup happiness campaign and its complementary weekly progovernment TV show, hosted by junta leader General Prayuth Chan-o-cha. (He penned the lyrics to the show’s theme song, “Returning Happiness to Thailand.”) But the similarities run much deeper. When you place the cases of Hong Kong and Thailand side by side, an extraordinary degree of overlap—for autocrats and activists alike—is revealed, and underscores how the paths to democracy are never linear, straightforward, or a foregone conclusion.

Just as the National Security Law has spurred activists and scholars to leave Hong Kong, the May 2014 military coup in Thailand set off a similar exodus from Bangkok. In their wake, each regime remade the fundamental rules for political participation. In Hong Kong, only true “patriots” could run in the 2023 District Council race. But it was Thailand’s rigged 2016 referendum on a revised constitution for which campaigning against the officially desired result was prohibited. With the backing of both the monarchy and conservative business interests, the Thai junta sought to extend its rule through changes to the parliamentary system, for example, by creating a group of military-appointed senators to prevent a reform candidate from becoming prime minister—which happened after both the 2019 and 2023 elections.

The language of “arbitrary detention” and “attitude adjustment” mirrors how Hong Kong activist-in-exile Agnes Chow has described being denied her confiscated passport by authorities until undergoing re-education exercises. But the terms themselves come from the Thai junta’s efforts in the mid-2010s to change the beliefs, or at least stifle the actions, of regime critics. The junta allegedly ordered more than nine-hundred people to report to military camps for “attitude adjustment.” Some who chose to flee instead later experienced long-distance harassment by the regime while based abroad, including the self-exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who in 2019 suffered a tear gas attack in his home in Japan. Pavin believes that the Thai establishment was behind the incident. Some Hong Kong exiles have reported similar experiences.

Likewise, both Bangkok and Beijing have used “forced disappearances” to silence critics and punish dissidents: Thai activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit was kidnapped in 2020 while living in Cambodia, and Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai was taken from Thailand to China in 2015. Gui reappeared three months later in China, where he was sentenced in 2020 to ten years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.” Wanchalerm remains missing today.

And just as Beijing recently integrated dozens of “core values” combining Marxism-Leninism and Confucianism into Hong Kong’s new patriotic-education curriculum, which is flattering to the Chinese Communist Party, Prayuth’s junta invented “twelve core values of the Thai people,” stressing loyalty to the state, hierarchy, respect, and order, and recommended they be recited in school daily.

There are, of course, plenty of differences between what happened in Bangkok, where one of us was born and spent her youth, and what is happening now in Hong Kong, about which the other wrote his last book. The law-and-order government in today’s Hong Kong is run not by a general but by a former police officer. In Bangkok, the old laws enforced with renewed vigor in the mid-2010s were lèse-majesté laws, whereas in Hong Kong they have been anti-sedition laws left over from British rule. In Bangkok at the time of the coup, the junta had no global public-health emergency to help justify banning protests. And so on.

In fact, given their histories, it is curious that there should be any similarities between Bangkok in the mid-2010s and Hong Kong in the early 2020s: Notably, Bangkok is a national capital and home to a royal family in a monarchy that has never been ruled by a communist party. Hong Kong has never been a capital nor home to a monarch, and in 1997 it went from being part of the British Empire to part of the Communist Party–ruled People’s Republic of China (PRC). Bangkok has seen many coups, while Hong Kong has seen none.

Finally, the two cities are also located in different parts of the continent—Bangkok in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong in East Asia. Geopolitically, this means that Thailand, unlike China, belongs to the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thailand plays an important role in determining ASEAN’s approach to Beijing—whether on maritime territorial disputes (of which Thailand has none with the PRC) or China’s growing economic influence across the region (relations between Bangkok and Beijing have been warming for decades).

New Era, New Parallels

In 2020, an online spat broke out between Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese netizens on one side and fervently nationalistic Chinese mainlanders on the other. These mainlanders had launched a social-media campaign disparaging a Thai celebrity couple for referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent entities. The celebrities’ defenders playfully dubbed themselves the Milk Tea Alliance: Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are each home to a distinctive type of milk-tea drink (Thai tea, milky tea, and bubble tea, respectively), whereas tea on the Chinese mainland is typically taken without milk. The Milk Tea Alliance, a loose confederation whose ranks have sometimes extended to nationals of other countries such as Burma, formed around members’ mutual dislike of Beijing’s political bullying and shared love of democratic values. Milk tea in essence symbolizes these shared values, which transcend national and regional boundaries and identities. The emergence of the Milk Tea Alliance is yet one more reason to explore the parallels in repression and protest in Hong Kong today and Bangkok a decade ago.

 The international press is giving far more coverage to the situation in Hong Kong than it did to postcoup Bangkok. Just months after the May 2014 coup, Bangkok youths watched images and footage from the Umbrella Movement on their TV screens, wondering if they would ever live in a place as vibrant and open. While Hong Kong progressives were capturing international attention staging mass gatherings and erecting a giant Lennon Wall covered in sticky notes, their Bangkok counterparts could legally assemble no more than five people.

Bangkok activists did manage to make the rare headline in 2014 by staging small protests that used dystopian fiction to mock the junta’s claim of returning happiness to Thailand. For example, after the cancelation of a screening of a film version of George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, quartets of young Thais would show up at predesignated spots in Bangkok, holding copies of the novel to signal that their country had become a Big Brother state. There were also reports of small groups flashing the three-finger salute used by the heroic young rebels battling an unjust autocracy in the Hunger Games series. (The gesture would also be adopted in Yangon after the 2021 coup in Burma.)

In 2016, some activists from Hong Kong and Bangkok, along with counterparts from other parts of the continent, formed the short-lived Network of Young Democratic Asians (NOYDA). Two representatives to NOYDA, a sort of Milk Tea Alliance avant la lettre, were Umbrella Movement leader Nathan Law and Bangkok campus organizer Rangsiman Rome. By 2016, Law was playing a key role in the newly formed opposition party Demosisto, which held big legally sanctioned rallies, while Rangsiman was risking arrest trying to gather together mere dozens of students for small demonstrations marking political anniversaries.

By the mid-2010s, however, some Hong Kongers already worried that authorities would eventually clamp down on civil society there, as they had in other parts of the PRC. The 2015 documentary “Ten Years,” lays out these fears in a set of vignettes about the terrors that could someday befall the city. But there is a big difference between dark imaginings and actually living in a dystopia. At that point, Hong Kong activists were focused on preventing the worst, while those in Bangkok were desperately searching for any way to lift the veil of postcoup darkness.

The world’s eyes turned again to Hong Kong and Bangkok in late 2020—due not only to online activism but also to repression in Hong Kong and street protests in Bangkok. For the first time, Hong Kong and Bangkok were paired together regularly in international news stories. Between September and December, the biggest demonstrations since the 2014 coup were rocking Bangkok. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to try to disperse the huge crowds of young Thais. These scenes, viewed by news watchers around the world, were reminiscent of the images from Hong Kong a year before. Some of the Bangkok activists explicitly acknowledged the Hong Kong protests as an inspiration.

Protesters in many parts of the world in the early 2020s had learned from and adapted the Hong Kong movement’s “be water” strategy of flexible flash mobs and shifting targets and use of ordinary objects to defend against tear gas. But some journalists noticed a key regional angle as well, pointing to the Milk Tea Alliance connections between activists in Hong Kong and Bangkok and interpreting the similarities between demonstrations in the two cities as a real-world carry over from online expressions of solidarity in 2020 and even earlier attempts at cooperation.

Early in 2016, two prominent student activists, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal of Bangkok and Joshua Wong of Hong Kong, had become friends when Netiwit traveled to Hong Kong to meet Wong. Netiwit then invited Wong to speak at a campus event in Bangkok later that year, but Wong never made it past the airport. Thai authorities held him there, at Beijing’s behest. After detaining Wong for twelve hours, they sent him back to Hong Kong.

This year will mark the tenth anniversaries of the Thai coup and the Umbrella Movement. Ten years on, and the situations in Bangkok and Hong Kong have essentially reversed. Bangkok has seen a gradual resurgence of democratic support, while Hong Kong has become a dystopia, bearing greater resemblance to the Bangkok of 2014 than to the Hong Kong of that year. Although it was never fully democratic, Hong Kong a decade ago was the scene of a vibrant struggle in which citizens were permitted to hold mass gatherings calling for true universal suffrage, the press could cover these actions freely, and anyone arrested for protesting would be charged and judged by independent courts that might decide a protester should go free.

Yet over the last decade, there have been moments of convergence between the two cities. In early 2020, authorities in both were troubled by how well anti–status quo candidates had performed in a 2019 election—for Hong Kong’s District Council and Thailand’s parliament—and used a variety of legalistic maneuvers to try to suppress the opposition. Two of the groups forced to disband were Hong Kong’s Demosisto, whose founders included Agnes Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong, and Thailand’s Future Forward Party, whose winning candidates in 2019 included Rangsiman Rome, by then a full-time politician.

From mid-2020 through early 2023, however, the cities’ respective situations diverged sharply. Bangkok saw a large wave of protests in the second half of 2020 while the Hong Kong streets stayed quiet. Thai activists were able to throw their energy into a new opposition party, Move Forward, a successor to Future Forward. There was no such avenue for Hong Kong activists to replace the now-disbanded opposition parties such as Demosisto and prodemocracy civil society organizations that had once so enlivened the city’s political landscape.

Both Bangkok and Hong Kong continue to suffer troubling forms of authoritarian oppression. One Bangkok activist and lawyer who was already serving a four-year sentence for lèse majesté charges was recently sentenced to another four years for insulting the monarchy on social media. Yet Move Forward, whose campaign platform called for reforming lèse majesté laws, has not been outlawed, and Thailand now has a civilian heading its government. The defenders of the establishment did, however, manage to block Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, from becoming prime minister despite the party’s having won more parliamentary seats than any other. The civilian who did become prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, is on good terms with the military establishment, the monarchy, and conservative business interests.

Still, Bangkok progressives have more reason for hope than their Hong Kong counterparts. This is a dramatic reversal from the mid-2010s, when Bangkok’s young progressives could only dream of being able to stand up and fight the way the Umbrella Movement had. In May 2023, Rangsiman, along with many other candidates from his Move Forward party, was elected to the Thai parliament in the second national election since the 2014 coup. Hong Kong activists, in contrast, have little obvious cause for optimism today, and must now find subtle ways to keep a spirit of resistance alive. Those who remain in the city are either fearfully awaiting the dreaded knock at the door or already languishing in prison. The remainder, like Nathan Law, live in exile. All are lamenting the loss of the freedoms they once had.

Wichuta Teeratanabodee is a doctoral student in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University and has published in periodicals such as The Diplomat and New Mandela; Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California–Irvine and the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (2020).

 

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Alex Ogle/AFP via Getty Images