Top: Soldiers face off with reporters moments after the military stages a coup on May 22, 2014.
Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the May 22, 2014 military coup that brought current junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to power. No other coupmaker has held on to power this long in recent Thai history.
To mark the occasion, we asked five activists who have dedicated much of the past five years to criticizing and unseating the regime to reflect – on what they have learned, how Thailand has changed since the military came to power, and whether civil rights will improve once the junta passes the baton on to the new elected government.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa, 27
Pro-democracy activist jailed for over two years for sharing a BBC biography of King Rama X until he won back his freedom two weeks ago.
I saw. I fought. I lost. I was hurt. After five years fighting the junta and spending time in jail, I lost. Well, I didn’t lose. It’s just that we haven’t won yet. Some people are discouraged and disappointed. Others continue fighting.
After five years, some people who used to support the coup are now against it. More people are politically alert, but there have been no significant changes in the overall picture.
The fight for human rights will go on. Even if there is an elected administration, the junta will still have power in parliament. Without absolute power, they won’t do foolish things as in the past.
Nuttaa ‘Bow’ Mahattana, 40
A familiar face of the pro-democracy movement who has been behind nearly all protests against the junta since 2014.
I underestimated the Thai people. Thais are more tolerant of military dictatorship than I expected. That’s why the junta managed to stay in power for as long as five years.
Freedom of expression under the junta has declined to the point that people have become used to self-censorship. Five years is enough time for people to get used to it. We didn’t have much freedom of expression before the coup, but it has sunk even lower.
The future of democracy depends on what kind of government will be installed. If Gen. Prayuth returns as prime minister, I don’t think much can be done.
Sombat Boonngam-anong, 51
A savvy cyberwarrior who organized flashmobs to resist the coup for 11 days until his arrest. Currently standing trial in multiple cases for his anti-junta activities.
The most visible change in the past five years was how some people who fought for a certain strand of democracy were turned into mindless supporters of the military junta.
They saw the failure of the junta over the past five years, yet they are okay with it. It’s scary meeting these people. If they were software, they would be not just infected with a virus, but completely distorted. They are becoming like zombies.
The elections shattered the wall of repression. The junta can hardly control anything now. Ordinary voters have become fiercely political. They are not cyber warriors, but netizens. On Twitter, many used to be just fans of K Pop. Now they are a political phenomenon.
Yaowalak Anuphan, 52
Head of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which formed just two days after the coup. Her organization has a backlog of nearly 200 legal cases faced by those opposing the junta.
Freedom of expression keeps sinking and more people censor themselves. The military has fully invaded civil society and injected its autocratic thinking into civilians.
Although the junta will legally cease to exist soon, its legacies are guaranteed through various state mechanisms, including laws and the judicial system. We will continue to see more uses of defamation laws and the Computer Crime Act.
Netiwit ‘Frank’ Chotiphatphaisal, 24
Student activist and provocateur whose challenges to long standing traditions at his university unsettle both foes and allies alike.
I learned that we took democracy for granted. We thought it was something that could be restored quickly after it was gone. We thought military dictatorship wouldn’t last long. But people have become better at adapting to life under dictatorship.
At symposiums, people are now more wary when they speak. This change was rapid, and it affected students and university lecturers alike.
But I also think online tools will be used more often, alongside activities at public venues. There will be more people questioning the removal of our freedom. People will take stock, look back and take more risks in the fight after an elected government is in place.