By Atith Keating
For a majority of Thai and international observers, the recent development with the student protests in Thailand is a fascinating and refreshing phenomenon. Political protests since the 2014 military coup had been tragic, as they could only attract tens if not dozens of demonstrators.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend working for London-based international human rights NGO. He referred to the phenomenon as an organic political movement that the Kingdom has never seen in years.
I agree with his assessment, but to take it further Thailand has not seen a young people led movement – not in years but in decades.
The last time I witnessed a student-led initiative of similar nature was in early 2006, when students under different platforms gathered to campaign against the administration of Thaksin Shinnawatra on human rights and accountability agendas.
Political veterans would remember that, despite being a popularly elected government, more than 2,800 extrajudicial killings took place under Thaksin from the war on drug campaign. In 2004, 85 Malay Muslim men died following the infamous Tak Bai massacre.
Spearheaded by Thammasat University Student Union, these students went on to collect signatures in campuses nationwide for Thaksin to be censured in the parliament. Their initiative was futile after the 2006 military coup. These politically active students opted away from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which campaigned on conservative and nationalistic agenda.
However, the numbers of students at the time were incomparable to today.
Perhaps the last time Thailand saw a demonstration which is genuinely student-led of similar gravity may have been the periods between 1973 to 1976, prior to the 6 October massacre. While Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a student leader-turned-law professor, was one of the leaders in the Black May of 1992, the remaining and more prominent leaders were mid-career political activists affiliated with the Confederation for Democracy.
Recently, a prominent Red Shirt activist Sombat Boonngam-anong gave an interview to BBC Thai offering some thoughts worth reflecting upon on the recent protests. He asked a question which left many of us scratching our heads. How will this event unravel?
This commentary hopes to shed some critical, but well-meaning thoughts on the student protests. It is not aimed at undermining or delegitimizing the protests, as the protest has potential to be a turning point in Thai contemporary politics. The writer also wishes to offer ideas for the student organizers and leaders.
First of all, the students and youths should be praised for being having been able to dismantle the separation between activism in the online and offline spheres. Analysts had previously undermined the argument that online agitation on social media can never be translated into street demonstrations in Thailand, like we have seen in other countries.
The critical question is could the demonstrations be prolonged? Could and should the students continue sporadic protests in Bangkok and in the provinces in the months to come?
The main flaw of the current movement is that it lacks a clear administrative structure like their predecessors in the 1970s (Student Centre of Thailand: SCT) and in the 1990s-2000s (Student Federation of Thailand: SFT); both are now defunct. Both the SCT and SFT had formalized structures of extensive student unions and groups across the country.
Speaking from experience, SFT had a leadership structure in Bangkok, with deputy secretaries-general and its representatives across the country. They were able to unite on a common campaign and strategy.
While the protests taking place in the provinces are noteworthy in terms of their irregular nature which is new to Thailand political landscape, protests in the periphery have little effect in terms of exerting political pressures to the decision-makers in the capital. Eventually, all protests will have to converge to Bangkok for maximum political effects. Are the students discussing this plan and possibility?
Obscure and lack of administrative structure comes a movement without direction.
In the eyes of political strategists, the student movement does not have any plan beyond day to day demonstration. Moreover, the demonstration can only bring about some changes if it involves bringing in diverse and broad constituencies.
As Sombat Boonngam-anong said in his interview, the movement should not ostracize other potential constituencies. Calling for a revolution is unhelpful nor is it necessary. Recently going around attacking allies is not helpful.
Pravit Rojanapruek, a veteran progressive journalist who was detained following the military coup, was verbally and publicly vilified on his Twitter after raising questions on the transparency of the donation and spending at the Thammasat rally. A critical and objective comment like this should be welcomed.
Furthermore, the students need to find ways to engage with like-minded individuals including those in the broader civil society sectors, trade unions, grassroots movement, and other urban professionals. Political messages at Thammasat University earlier this week could be delivered. Freedom of expression and the bringing of such issues to the public should be welcomed.
However, the students failed to garner allies with public standing to support them, before dropping a bomb. This is like going into battle without an army. While the wide-spread discussions on the role of the monarchy vis-à-vis constitutional democracy has reached a level that is unprecedented in recent Thai political history, the issues that are discussed will have to diversify to attract a broader population.
In terms of their engagement with political actors, Move Forward Party cannot be the only ally of the students. Making an enemy out of Pheu Thai should be refrained. Are the students planning to engage face to face with other opposition parties or even identifying open-minded members in the government?
Are they discussing ways of engaging the international community and diplomatic missions? More importantly it will need to try to learn the experience of street demonstrations in other countries. The example of Hong Kong shows that street protests may not be able to bring about any change.
The last critical question is – is the government really retreating? Netiwit Chotiphatpahisal, a Chulalongkorn student activist, recently wrote a somewhat disappointing and naïve commentary where he argued that the arrest of a political activist and lawyer Anon Nampa shows a sign of a “desperate government” and that the government is very worried.
The government and its status apparatuses have remained calm at this moment. Could the protest movement sustain itself if people are starting to be locked up for the long run? What will their response and preparation be if the government decided to move toward what we saw in May 2010?
In conclusion, the above questions raised some critical issues which warrant proper and strategic discussion by the student activists. The movement could be more effective if it takes in these well meaning critiques. This is if the students are hoping that their movement could lead to changes toward a democratic and rule of law-based Thailand.
Without a clear strategy, structure, or plan, the demonstration could eventually fade away and die. The government has time on its side.
About the author
Atith Keating is a pseudonym of a veteran human rights defender and former student activist who does not wish to disclose their identity due to the sensitvity of the issues discussed in this article.