By: Pithaya Pookaman

During the four years of authoritarian rule by the military junta, the Thai public and foreign visitors may occasionally get a fleeting glance of a three-finger salute flashed by pro-democracy protesters in the thoroughfares and well-known landmarks of Bangkok. 

Glimpses of the salute are reminiscent of the silent defiance of an imaginary deep state by Katness Everdeen of District 12 in the popular American celluloid, The Hunger Games.  While filmgoers of the fantasy series have inundated the box offices around the world, the familiar symbolic show of defiance by pro-democracy and pro-human rights activists has been a permanent fixture in Thailand’s political scene. 

Although the symbolic gesture of defiance against an authoritarian regime has been banned by the junta (misnamed as the National Council for Peace and Order), protesters dare to challenge police arrests by weighing in their deep frustration of the iron-grip rule by flashing three fingers to express their desire for an end to a tyrannical regime.

After repeated postponements of the general election by the junta, pro-democracy protesters, made up of the Democracy Restoration Group as well as a coalition of different groups of university students from across the country, raised the ante in their defiance of the junta by staging a poignant demonstration on May 22, 2018 at the Thammasat University to mark the fourth anniversary of the military coup, including an attempted peace march to Government House – the Prime Minister’s Office — some 2 km. away. 

Thammasat University was the site of a October 1976 student protest that resulted in a brutal massacre of students by security forces. The university was launched many decades ago by iconic Pridi Panomyong, one of the leaders of the Rassadorn Party which transformed Thailand’s absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 1932,  as Thailand’s first institution of political learning with emphasis on democracy.

The student activists who gathered at Thammasat, chanting “Junta, Return Power to the People” presented three demands to the regime: to hold a general election in November 2018 as earlier promised, that the junta must relinquish its role and the military government must be transformed into a caretaker government to guarantee free, fair and transparent elections devoid from the interference by the junta, and the armed forces must immediately cease their support of the junta to prevent the latter from extending its dictatorial power.

At the outset of the protest, there was a standoff between a handful of students and the overwhelming police forces which set up barricades around the university to prevent the activists from proceeding to the Government House, thereby blocking the normal flow of the traffic. Journalists and human rights workers, including those from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, had to undergo rigorous process for obtaining identification passes and were strictly forbidden to join or mingle with the protesters under the threat of prosecution.

Prominent among the protesters were, among others, Nuttha (Bow) Mahattana, a freelance human rights activist;  Rangsiman Rome, Sirawith Seritiwat, university student; and Ekachai Hongkangwan, and Anon Nampa, political activists.  By mid-afternoon, the police had forcefully dispersed peaceful demonstrators and prevented the march to Government House, but not after the protest leaders had publicly aired their demands and voluntarily given themselves up to the authorities.

The activists, 14 in all, were detained and charged with sedition under Article 116 of the penal code which carries a seven-year jail term, and with violating the junta’s ban on public assembly which is punishable by six months of imprisonment and a fine of Bt10,000 (US312).  The activists were released on bail two days later amid a call by a chorus of human rights organizations to immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release them activists.

The students’ latest show of defiance and their demands on the regime have resonated across the country and have been given prominence by international media.  It has barely made a dent in junta’s grip on power nor has it triggered a political tsunami that would destabilize the military government.  The planned march to the Government House to deliver the letter spelling out their demands didn’t materialize.  However, the thrust of their demonstration was to put their message across to the Thai people and to the world that four years of military rule must end and that the people had the right to determine their own future through free and fair elections.

Since seizing power in 2014 from a democratically elected government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – who suffered the same fate – the junta has succeeded in institutionalizing consummate authoritarianism by controlling almost every aspect of Thai life.  Upon assuming power, it vowed to promptly return the power to the civilian government and even had the audacity to compose a song entitled “We Will Keep Our Promise” to reiterate the point. 

By the second year, the song had disappeared from the air waves and hs never been heard again.  The protesters therefore have every right to emphatically remind the junta to honor its vow.

Though not as brutal as the dictatorship under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the 1960s, the present authoritarian regime is more subtle and far more encompassing.  People are told not only what/how they should not act, but also what/how they should not think.  Deviants are either prosecuted or are subjected to an ‘attitude adjustment’ session which is a subtle way of saying, often under duress: “do as we tell you, or else.” 

Protest leaders and would-be activists often get visits by the military personnel at their homes but the threat to them has always been unequivocal. The people are too scared to speak out, let alone voice their support for the students for fear of being targeted by the authorities. 

Many foreign observers are dumbfounded by the strange phenomenon of a country’s elite and the urban middle class throwing away their intellect and moral conscience to side with the dictatorship by completely ignoring decency, fairness, and justice in a continuing charade.  However, the use of arbitrary power by the junta and its perennial violations of human rights, including the recent crackdown on student activists, have not gone unnoticed by the international community and human rights groups such as UN Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch,  Amnesty International, and ASEAN Parliamentarians on Human Rights, et al. 

These organizations continue to press the regime in Thailand to honor all its obligations under the United Nations, ASEAN Charter, relevant conventions, and more importantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which had been signed and ratified by Thailand.

The flashing of a three-finger gesture by the student activists is but a mere symbolism. Nattha Mahattama is no Katness Averdeen the fictional heroine whose skill in archery and keen instinct for survival have not only saved her in the do-or-die arena, but rallied freedom-loving people to topple a ruthless autocratic regime. 

Be that as it may, Nattha and her comrades-in-arms have the guts and the fortitude to venture into the political arena where angels fear to tread and to offer a flicker of hope for a more humane society and to expose junta’s deep staters for what they are with a realization that democracy and freedom do not just fall from the sky. 

Every twist and turn in the odyssey towards a genuine democracy will eventually come to fruition. Although the junta will always seek to malign democratic process and autocratic lunacy may amuse and frustrate the Thai people, the latter will come to believe in a truism that the forces of righteousness will ultimately triumph over the forces of evil.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai Ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.