By: Pithaya Pookaman
Student demonstrations and street protests rarely bring down governments but they can put in motion public scrutiny and could trigger an avalanche of opposition to regimes to a point that they could alter the political landscape and power equation.
At no time in history have Thailand’s students displayed such astute political awareness and assumed such an assertive role in the opposition to an authoritarian government. The advent of such a student phenomenon in Thai politics must be considered as an “age of enlightenment” for the previously docile student movement.
This new awakening among the students and the masses cannot be easily subdued by an authoritarian regime. Being weary of six years of authoritarian rule by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who usurped power in a military coup in 2014, coupled with the prevalent injustice, the lack of democracy and strict school rules imposed by the military regimes of complete subservience and hierarchical glorification, Thailand’s students finally have said ‘enough’ and taken to the streets.
Following sporadic flash mob protests scattered throughout many provinces, as many as 20,000 students from secondary and tertiary levels nationwide converged at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on August 16 raising the three-fingered salute, which signifies freedom, equality, and brotherhood, in symbolic defiance. They have emphatically spelled out three core demands: ending the intimidation of critics of the government, amending the constitution and holding new elections. In addition, they articulated three more points: no more coups, no national unity government, and upholding democracy with the king as head of state under the constitution.
The reference to the king was meant to placate the regime and the oligarchic establishment, confirming that the students had no intention to abolish the monarchy, but only to make it more in tune with other modern monarchies in Europe and elsewhere.
In addition to the three-fingered salute, the students also tied white ribbons to their hair, wrists, and bags and in public places as the symbol of dissent, injustice and to protest the disappearance of democracy activists. Some held up sheets of plain white paper to convey the message for the absence of freedom of expression under the dictatorial regime. Such symbolism is now a daily occurrence and a fact of life in schools and public places.
The student-led protests, which started before the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, have already caught the attention of many young people and gained the support among unlikely Thai voices. Back in 1971, a mass demonstration by university and vocational students had led to the downfall of the dictatorial regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and to the establishment of a short-lived democratic government only to be toppled by a military coup five years later. The present student protests have brought to the fore wide-ranging grievances and are participated by students ranging from grade 6 through grade 12 and up to the university level. Vocational students also join in but as supporters rather than ideological activists.
While the student uprising in 1971 only demanded the writing of a constitution long promised by the military regime, the students today are also demanding the writing of a new constitution to replace the 2017 constitution which was drafted at the military junta’s behest and adopted in a farcical referendum. Although the constitution has many undemocratic features, the most ostentatious insult to the democratic institution is the appointment of 250 senators by the military junta to guarantee the continuation of the military regime and to provide effective veto on constitutional reform.
However, the students go much further than amending the constitution. They call for an ideological transformation as well as reforms of political, judicial, and social structures. Students in the predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces are even alluding to a certain form of self-determination in those provinces in addition to the democratization of the country. The student discontent also centers on increasing economic hardship brought on by incompetent and corrupt Prayuth regime. The economic malaise is aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic which could result in economic contraction this year by at least 8 percent. They are frustrated by the regime’s imposition of the Emergency Decree which they perceive as the means to suppress the students’ protests rather than containing and mitigating the pandemic.
Perhaps the students’ most apparent grievances go back many generations but have become almost unbearable during the present authoritarian regime led by Prayuth. The regime reinforces the traditional school value with rigid and collective regimentation. These include students’ recital of 12 Thai core values which stress discipline and filial piety, loyalty, and complete obedience, and prostrating themselves before teachers during special ceremonies for some schools.
Paradoxically, the latter practice was abolished by King Chulalongkorn or King Rama V about 160 years ago along with the abolition of slavery. The martial rules even encompass students’ dress code and crew-cut hairstyles for boys and short hair for girls. The students counter the regime’s outdated draconian rules with the flashing of the salute during flag-raising and the compulsory daily singing of the national anthem, signaling their defiance of the regime’s regimentation which is totally out of tune with modern-day society.
The student protests draw the ire of the oligarchic establishment and overzealous royalists who chastise them for ‘crossing the line’ by involving criticism of royal institutions. Pro-government media such as The Nation, Manager, and Bangkok Post put out editorials questioning the ulterior motive of the students and their financial sources. The Nation’s scathing media attack on the student protesters ultimately backfired when its main sponsors withdrew their support of the news outlet under public pressure.
Although the educational authorities allow students to hold protest events on school premises, the Prayuth government has authorized the security apparatus to harass student leaders and speakers at the rallies and bring charges against them. The police even press charges against students’ tying of white ribbons in public places for violation of the Cleanliness Act. Some government authorities go so far as to propose the banning of the salute. But given that the protests are organic, diverse and without a centralized organizing body, and spontaneous in nature, the arrest of the main players will not effectively suppress the student movement. Human rights groups are condemning the regime for the violation of the students’ rights while UNICEF called for all parties to ensure that those involved remain safe and able to express their opinion peacefully without fear or intimidation.
Pithaya Pookamanis a former Thai ambassador and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.