Identity politics and student protest movements

On 31 August 2014, students in Hong Kong began discussing in earnest what their response should be to measures laid out by the Chinese National People’s Congress that would severely curtail democratic elections in the city.

A class boycott was called by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the group Scholarism, which a couple of years earlier had led protests against plans to introduce a controversial 'moral and national education’ subject to the national high school curriculum.

The call to boycott classes from 22 to 26 September was widely followed – my own tutorial classes were down about 50%, with many of those attending actually students from the mainland. Some high school students also joined the boycott and more than 100 academics organised a “Seminar on Democracy” for the protestors at Tamar Park.

By the end of that week, the boycott had evolved into the now famous Umbrella Movement, the student-led protest that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets to demand a more genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

Military coup

Not so far away, Thailand was also experiencing turmoil.

Earlier in 2014, the latest chapter of a long and bitter political crisis was playing out on the streets of Bangkok. Royal-nationalist protesters were attempting to bring down the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who had comfortably won an election just three years earlier.

The six months of often violent protests brought key parts of Bangkok to a standstill and the government to its knees, but it was the army who delivered the fatal blow by staging a military coup on 22 May. They have been running the country arbitrarily ever since.

The Red Shirt movement that supported the ousted government mostly kept their heads down following the putsch – hardly surprising given that the coup leader, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, led a military operation in 2010 that left around 80 of them dead.

Since the coup, a group of university students and recent graduates calling themselves New Democracy Movement have emerged as the most active opposition to the military government.

Thirteen from this group – mostly students – were arrested on 23 June for campaigning against a junta-backed constitution draft that will go to referendum in August.

The students and young people in the New Democracy Movement have shown energy, courage and resourcefulness in their fight and should be commended.

However, the group is extremely small, numbering only a few dozen. The broader student body in Thailand seems to give them a wide berth and appears largely unperturbed that their fellow students are harassed and arrested for peacefully protesting against a military junta.

What explains the rousing chorus of student voices for democracy in Hong Kong compared to the muted response of their counterparts in Thailand?

Shared identity

A major factor is collective identity.

The students in Hong Kong rallied around a localist identity that found its expression in the protesters’ own Cantonese language and culture and was galvanised by their opposition to a perceived external enemy – mainland China.

The centrality of the Hong Kong identity to the Umbrella Movement has since become obvious, with the emergence of so-called ‘nativist’ groups like Hong Kong Indigenous and a growing movement now openly campaigning for full independence.

The bulk of the Umbrella Movement also shared two more identities – age and class.

The average age of protesters in Hong Kong was found to be around 28 years old, with nearly half under 25 years, pointing to a youthful movement comprised largely of students and recent graduates. Participants were also more or less middle-class.

Although the homogeneity of the movement at times worked against it – opposition often came from the older generation and residents of Hong Kong’s more working-class neighbourhoods – its singularity did help it to coalesce in the first place.

By contrast, identity has been a barrier to progressive student mobilisation in Thailand.

The reactionary movement against democracy has effectively monopolised nationalist – which in Thailand also means royalist – identity, and to push against this has social consequences.

The insurgent Red Shirts have been subject to ‘othering’ and are often labelled as ‘unThai’. Any students inclined to protest against the current junta would be subject to the same abuse, creating a significant disincentive to mobilisation.

Although members of the New Democracy Movement have been keen to position themselves as distinct from the Red Shirt movement, the country’s politics are so polarised that they are nonetheless often branded as ‘Red’. The association is damaging, given the vitriol so often thrown at that movement.

In the minds of many Thai students, identifying themselves with the New Democracy Movement would put them at risk of being labelled ‘provincial’, ‘uncool’, ‘uncivilised’ and – most seriously of all – disloyal to the monarchy.

No matter what some students may think about the current political situation, the social cost of being against the status quo is just too high.

Class and regional identities have also played a key part. Many students tend to be from more privileged sectors of society and disproportionately from or based in Bangkok.

As Thailand’s colour-coded political crisis pits the capital against the provinces in the north and northeast of the country and has elements of a class-struggle, many students are therefore more likely to sympathise with the ‘yellow’ faction and may even support the current military regime, or at least tolerate it as ‘necessary’.

In fact, many students in Bangkok took part in the early stages of the royal-nationalist street movement that led to the downfall of the popularly elected government in the first place.

Multiple identities

People have multiple identities that intersect in complex ways. Students are not only students but are also defined by class, region, race, religion, gender etc.

The degree to which particular students may feel moved to fight for a particular cause in a particular context may have more to do with a convergence of their other identities than it does the mere fact that they are enrolled in a university.

The alignment of these identities with the local political context also determines the nature of the mobilisation.

The conditions in Hong Kong have been conducive to a progressive student action calling for a more meaningful democracy and self-determination. In Thailand, circumstances have created – with the exception of a very small group of activists – a reactionary student (in)action to defend a system that maintains privilege and disenfranchises millions.

James Buchanan is a lecturer and PhD candidate at City University of Hong Kong. His main research interest is social movements and contentious politics in Asia.