Opinion: What COVID-19 Crisis Means to the Student Movement

Protest at Mahidol University Salaya Campus in Nakhon Pathom province on Feb. 25, 2020.
Protest at Mahidol University Salaya Campus in Nakhon Pathom province on Feb. 25, 2020.

By Bunkueanun Paothong, student activist

It is unbelievable that it was just two months ago that the students across the country came out in protest and showed their anger towards the state of our nation.

Economic mismanagement, injustice, and inequality was everywhere. Or even rampant disregard of the rule of law to enhance interests. These are what the students have seen throughout the course of this regime, later legitimized themselves through a sham election.

It was with all these reasons that led to the demonstration by the students from all over Thailand.

I organized and participated in one of the largest rallies in Mahidol University. For the first time in more than a decade, Mahidol students organized a demonstration of this calibre. Almost three thousand demonstrators answered our call. It was at the apex of the student movement that gripped the country and inspired many.

It was on that fateful night of February 25th that Mahidol students and myself made a solemn pledge to continue working under the philosophy of our university’s motto – “Wisdom of the Land” – and to keep fighting for justice, equality, and liberty under the rule of law.

It was that night that we became part of a larger student movement. And it was for the first time in my life, the gatherings of students lit a fire of hope in me. I, along with my fellow students across Thailand, am proud to be a part of the historic student movement of our time.

And then the COVID-19 crisis struck.

Since COVID-19 has denied us the important opportunity to build on the momentum that we created two months ago, we cannot go on about and do anything without thinking about it carefully. It was at this moment in time where we have to be cautious on how to handle the situation, and how to act.

At most, we can mount a mini-campaign on social media to raise awareness on a certain issue, such as the recent issue of Chiang Mai wildfires, and our campaign #ThailandNotJustBangkok (#ประเทศไทยไม่ใช่แค่กรุงเทพ), or the campaign to pressure the universities across the country to return 25 percent of the tuition fee to the students as a measure to assist them during the pandemic.

While these were minor attempts to gain traction to the general populace, their impact has gained us a foothold for everyone involved. But we have to face the fact: it is not enough.

Yet there is nothing else we can do. Despite the strong and active determination from the students, we have to face the terrible truth; we cannot be certain of what will happen next.

The uncertainty in this year alone left us wondering if the student movement will ever be successful in its goals. COVID-19 has left us a few options. The best thing we can do at the moment is to wait it out until the dust has settled.

This is not ideal for most of the active members in the student movement. But in my view, it would be a much better option than to act rash and irrational. We have to be smart about how we are going to move forward.

But then again, it is innocent for many to think that this fight is going to be an easy one. Challenges are ahead of us at every turn. The next day is always more difficult for the students.

It is evident that this government sees our movement as a threat to their consolidation of power in the post-junta era. Several members of the student movement, myself included, are believed to be followed and monitored by Thai intelligence agencies. There have also been several scare tactics against the leading members to compel them not to go on further.

Their determination to stay in power was as strong as our resolve to hold them accountable for every decision they have made until this point. And I believe that we might be able to make a comeback once the COVID-19 crisis has been resolved.It is the matter of how, it is the matter of when.

Of course, with a lot of uncertainty on the horizon, it cannot be guaranteed of what’s ahead of us. What will happen after COVID-19 has finally gone? Economic downturn? Yet another crisis? But no matter what happens, I remain faithful to the cause of our student movement. I believe the students will once again lead the movement that is larger than all of us, for a democratic and free Thailand.

Nothing can be certain in this time where Thailand is riddled with the pandemic, but I will always be certain of this one important fact: our student movement is going to be stronger than ever. We have done it before, we will do it again.

About the author
Bunkueanun Paothong is a second year student at Mahidol University’s international program. He is currently studying International Relations.