LED signs and light sticks make blurry shapes in the darkening sky. Raised iPhone lights flicker like fireflies. Young faces glow with sweat and glee. Among the roiling crowd, gold framed photographs of K-pop idols bob up and down on the current. But the gold frames are a parody of the gold-framed portraits of the Thai monarchy. And this is not a K-pop concert, but a protest.
K-pop idols – and their millions of worldwide fans (or stans) – are becoming increasingly political. In recent years, the followers of the multi-billion dollar South Korean music genre have been expanding their reach beyond the boundaries of music fandom. They have raised funds for BLM, thwarted Trump rallies and turned their forces to climate activism, planting thousands of trees and raising funds for various natural disasters.
In Thailand, K-poppers have been instrumental in the sustained anti-government protests that have rocked the country since last year. After students stormed the streets in February 2020, following the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the Future Forward Party (an upstart opposition party which advocated greater democracy and was critical of Thailand’s military-backed government), support was whipped up on social media. Prominent K-pop stars spoke out about the protests. K-pop fan groups followed suit. Hashtags like #whatshappeninginthailand and #หยุดคุกคามประชาชน (stop oppressing people) soon flooded Twitter. Thai stans paired general K-pop hashtags with statements about the protests to spread the message further.
Even more critical than online expressions of support were the donations. Fandoms of various K-pop groups, including Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, EXO and BTS, rallied together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The principal spark came on 16 October when police used a water cannon – reportedly laced with blue dye and an apparent tear gas chemical – to disperse a group of protesters. Thai fans of girl group Girls’ Generation responded by raising 779,562 baht ($25,000) in nine hours. Over the following week, $100,000 was amassed in funding by around 20 different fan groups.
“Protests suddenly turned very violent as riot police used tear gas and water cannons. It’s unacceptable and disgusting behaviour,” Areeya, who manages a Girls’ Generation fanbase on Twitter with almost 18,000 followers, told me over email. She created a poll on the account to see if fans would donate. “It was so unexpected that so many people were interested and we earned such high fundraising”. The account opened fundraising twice, and accumulated 1 million baht ($33,000) in donations.
Some of the money went to buying protective gear for the protesters: helmets, goggles, umbrellas. Most of it is being used to get young activists through court cases and out of jail.
Collectively, the fan groups are the single biggest donors to Thailand’s pro-democracy movement, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights [TLHR], a pro-bono legal service which has received the vast sum of donations raised by the K-pop fandoms.
The organisation is using the money for “legal assistance and providing swift access to justice for defendants who have many charges against them,” says TLHR Director, Yaowalak Anuphan. The money is significant to their work: the team are currently managing 200 cases connected to the protests, each of which they expect to take 1-2 years to resolve – perhaps longer, as Anuphan says the government are using cases “strategically” with long time-frames “as a way to pressure people to plead guilty”.
It is not just the scale of Thailand’s youth-led protest movement that has been globally regarded as unprecedented – but also its demands. From initially focusing on a new constitution and the dissolution of parliament, calls have morphed to include reform of the monarchy and the excesses of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. In a country where the monarchy has long been seen as an untouchable institution, the king a semi-divine authority, this challenge is radical. And the gravity of the charges being brought against those who dare to mount it reflect that.
The taboo on criticising Thailand’s royal family is backed by a draconian law: Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code – the lèse-majesté provision. Under this charge, protesters face up to 15 years in prison for their involvement in the movement.
TLHR are currently providing legal aid on 46 lèse-majesté cases involving 59 individuals – some of them minors. Of these are four prominent pro-democracy activists who were recently charged with sedition and defaming the monarchy with their protest activities. Their cases are the first of hundreds to be taken to the courts.
“Section 112 has been weaponised by the government as a tool to abolish opposition,” says Anuphan. The outcome of these four cases will depend on the “dynamics of Thai society,” but the current forecast is grim: “They have been detained since 9 February and they were denied their bail request, so it is really hard to say that they won’t face imprisonment.”
But despite the real risks, Thailand’s protesters are not ready to lay down arms. Last week saw a fresh wave of street protests in response to the charging of the four activists.
“I once went to the protest and there was a dance floor,” says Monprariya L., a young Thai activist and K-pop fan who volunteered with Amnesty International during the protests in 2020. “And a K-pop fan club started to dance to the song ‘Into The New World’. Part of us wants the new world, too, wants democracy… In the past, young people in Korea fought for democracy. It’s the same for us. We have to speak up”.
Thai protesters and K-pop fans share more than just a love of Korean Wave music. They are young, educated, tech-savvy, and came of age in a post-deference, digital area, amid improving rights for many sections of society. They understand the power they wield – and they will continue to use it.