When I covered a recent protest at Mahidol University, I kept looking for a well known anti-government student leader for an interview, but he was nowhere to be found.
None of the student leaders seemed to know where he was, until another activist told me that the missing campaigner succumbed to his parent’s insistence to not get involved in anti-government activism just days ago.
“He’s still helping us, but behind the scenes,” Suvipa Hengsrivorakulchai told me at the demonstration that evening.
The ex-activist was one of those moderate voices of dissent and reform, and fluent in English. It was a blow that a visible student leader from Mahidol can no longer be the face to speak to journalists, Thai and foreign.
Suvipa herself graduated from Mahidol University a few years back, and her juniors asked her to return to the campus to assist them in this monumental task of getting rid of Gen Prayut Chan-ocha, pushing for a new constitution and carving out a freer Thailand.
On that evening, the students ignored university administrators’ announcement banning the use of its campus as a protest ground. These administrators are either on the other side of politics, or at least want to appease the big wigs in the government that they had tried to stop the students from protesting.
Some parents, university and school administrators are piling pressure on students to cease their political demonstrations over the past month but with little success.
Suvipa speaks candidly about the need to compromise between the simple calls for fresh general elections and a new charter and that of a reform proposal of the institution, which is protected by the lese majeste law and cannot be named here due to the writer’s company policy.
“Here, we avoid talking about the 10 demands openly but it doesn’t mean we don’t touch it in other discreet ways. Some may be symbolic,” Suvipa, who has the benefit of more supportive parents, told me.
Sure enough, not far from the stage at the university football field was a booth run by students selling black T-shirts with the message: “History Is Not Kind to Men Who Play God”.
Their bravery to push for change is not lacking in fear, however, and Suvipa readily admitted that to me.
It’s more like on the other side of the political equation, more and more young Thais feel stifled and suffocate from the current educational and political systems and are fed up with the state of Thai society.
They want change. They want real freedom, genuine free speech, not a pretense of having it and unable to criticize the monarchy institution without the risk of going to prison or worse.
For those surprised by the “sudden” spring of political youths, those before them have been paving the ground, showing by doing.
Think about the flashing of the three-fingers salute against the powers that be that’s now widespread, with tens of thousands university and high school students doing it and sharing their act of defiance on social media and in front of the mainstream mass media.
Back in the months after the May 2014 coup which was led by Gen Prayut, very few would dare for they know there’s a high price to be paid.
Jatupat Boonpararatraksa, aka Pai Daodin, was arguably the young man who eventually popularized the flashing of three-fingers salute against the military junta.
Jatupat readily explained to me when we met on Thursday for an updated chat-cum-interview that he and a few people before him have been influenced by the Hollywood Movie’s The Hunger Games.
Jatupat insisted that he never thought of himself as the protagonist, or Katniss Everdeen, but those like the black man and others who rose to the occasion by continuing the resistance and flashing three fingers in defiance after Everdeen has been taken away.
Jatupat, now 29, ends up charged with sedition but spent the biggest chunk of his time in prison under the lese majeste law for sharing a critical biography of the King written by BBC Thai-language news. Two years and five months in prison, before he got out in May last year.
The current protests did not just spring out of nowhere. People like Jatupat and others, like activist Sombat Boonngam-anong and politicians like Chaturon Chaisang resisted and have paid the price. Some were detained, charged with sedition, others fled to a life in political exile.
Seeing a groundswell of youth standing up for a political cause, flashing three fingers, one wonders what will become of Thailand in the weeks and months ahead.
The regime can continue to keep arresting the leaders, but what to do with the rest when their heart and soul are no longer with, or under, the powers that be?
Can even a military coup, which was rumored to be cooking on Friday afternoon and trending on Thai-language Twitter after videos captured movements of army trucks and weapons in what the army called a routine practice, send the youth quietly back to schools and universities?
What price are young Thais willing to pay for their dreams to be realized?