No More Heroes: Democracy Fails if We Watch From the Sidelines

Student pro-democracy movement leader Sirawith Seritiwat, at left, with the author, Pravit Rojanaphruk at a Feb. 18 Thamassat University symposium.

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer


A Thammasat University lecturer told me Wednesday that democracy activist leader Sombat Boonngam-anong has been too quiet since he was arrested in 2014 for calling for a failed effort to overthrow the coup makers.

But what more should we expect from an individual – Sombat or anyone – in carrying the flickering torch of democracy and human rights with a paranoid military bent on suppressing any views they don’t agree with, while its opposition is mostly comprised of fence-sitters?


Freedom cannot be maintained if we are not willing to do our part in defending it. For this I will never blame Sombat, who’s currently facing a military trial for sedition and violating the Computer Crime Act, and has his money in the bank frozen by the junta.


A week ago I sat at the same bench with Sombat almost by chance when he was invited to speak at Thammasat about internet censorship. Sombat was almost apologetic to me when talking about his lack of “actions” during the past year since his arrest. I told him it’s unfair for anyone to expect more given what he had done, and the sacrifice made. Considering his travails, nobody has the right to demand more from him. I said the struggle for democracy and human rights is more than a sprint. It’s more like a relay race where people must take turns contributing whatever they can.

Sombat insisted during our brief tete-a-tete under the late afternoon sun that he might give it another try if the situation became severe, and if he believed there was a realistic chance of restoring democracy.

Soon after Sombat excused himself to prep for his comments on the open-air stage, Sirawith Seritiwat, aka Ja New, arrived by chance and took the spot Sombat had been sitting.

Where Sombat was the face of resistance in the months after the coup, young Sirawith is the man of the hour. Unlike Sombat who’s almost forgotten by the international media, Sirawith is the current darling and hope of the anti-junta movement for rising up from humble origins and a low-income background to provoke the junta and face dramatic repercussions, including being hooded and dragged away in the middle of the night only to be dumped at a police station. He’s currently charged with violating the junta’s ban on political assembly of five or more persons after he led a failed trip to examine a historical park allegedly tainted by army corruption in Hua Hin.

Activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, at left, and the author, Pravit Rojanaphruk, at a Feb. 18 symposium held at Thammasat University.

Seated on the bench, Sirawith said he’s concerned the situation could turn from bad to worse for Thailand. He admitted to fearing another coup before the promised July referendum on the draft charter if military thinks the junta-overseen document is doomed for rejection.

In that case, I said, the new military rulers will probably make life under current junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha feel like a walk in the park. I also told him there could be more than one worst-case scenario for Thailand, and it’s always wise to be prepared for the various possible scenarios.

On Tuesday I met U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenca, who was in town for a two-day work visit. It wasn’t for an interview, but Jenca wanted to hear my views as to how the United Nations can more effectively engage with Thailand in order to see it return to democracy.

While I’ll leave what I told Jenca for a possible future topic, Jenca reminded me that when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Prayuth in September at the U.N. General Assembly, a brief meeting Jenca was present for, more than pleasantries were exchanged.

I thank the United Nations for its tireless and altruistic diplomatic efforts in trying to remind the junta of the need to return power to the people.

Before we adjourned, Jenca reminded me that if there’s “some kind of expectation” that change in Thailand would come from the outside, “it’s not going to happen.”

This is both refreshing and sobering, coming from a top U.N. official. Fence-sitting or begging for outside assistance cannot bring about freedom and democracy.

Back to the same Thammasat academic who questioned Sombat’s inactivity. He said his girlfriend really dislikes military rule, yet doesn’t do anything more than grumble.

No hero can save Thailand from itself – not Sombat, Siriwith, or even the United Nations. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we stop waiting to be rescued by Marvel superheroes and get off the fence to play our part, the better.


Pravit Rojanaphruk can be reached at [email protected] and @PravitR.

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