How young is too young to be arrested for your political beliefs? Fifteen? Twelve? Or even younger?
The truth is, those participating in the fight for monarchy reform and to oust Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha are getting younger and younger. One should ask why.
Over the past month and a half Thailand saw teenage anti-government protesters clashing with riot police near nightly and a good number of these youths are below 20 – some just 15 or even younger.
Last month also saw a 17-year-old high school student charged with lese-majeste. And earlier this week the Education Minister ordered a probe into a set of eight children books which they alleged to “brainwash” children aged 5 and older by instilling “political hatred” as it praised monarchy-reform protest co-leaders. Some of these protest co-leaders are in their early twenties, such as Thammasat University student Parit Chiwarak, and currently back in prison again.
It should be apparent to any casual observer that the powers that be are fighting hard to win the hearts and minds of these “kids” but with little or no success since the youth-led monarchy-reform movement sprang up a little over a year ago.
Last week, Yaowalak Anuphan, Head of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, who provide pro bono legal representations and assistance to anti-government protesters, reminded me recently that the youngest arrested and prosecuted anti-government protester in Din Daeng Delta was in fact just 12 years old. The boy was arrested on Sept 13. Then this week, on Wednesday night, a 11-year-old boy was arrested for violations of the COVID-19 ban on public gathering at the same protest site. A photo of the boy “escorted” away by police from the Din Daeng area spread widely on social media.
As for the youngest facing lese majeste charge, Yaowalak pointed to a 14-year-old boy arrested on Sept. 14 for burning of the king’s image in Din Daeng last month. Over 140 people, mostly young, have been charged with lese majeste since the monarchy-reform movement began over a year ago.
Among the first things people ought to understand is that the vast majority of these youths, who are in their early twenties and lower, were too young to be politically active when the May 2014 coup occurred.
Monarchy-reform protest co-leader Benja Apan, 22, was arrested on Thursday for lese-majeste and is now in prison. Her bail requests were denied twice, on Friday and Saturday. She was only 15 when the coup took place.
Some were too young to exercise their electoral rights back in 2019 since they were younger than the minimum required age of 18 at the time. This means they did not choose Prayut to become PM and were too young to be directly influenced by the time when the late king, Rama IX was active and influential. King Bhumibol passed away in 2016 and had been inactive for years prior to his death due to his health.
Second, it’s clear that these youngsters either do not see a bright future for Thailand particularly after the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the economy and job prospects. Benja, an engineering student, told me last month she dreamt of becoming a space engineer working for NASA and later helping Thailand in the field. I put her dream in the past tense because her political commitment, her yearning for fundamental freedom to criticize the monarchy, may now divert her from her dream.
And if you are among the working-class teenagers who participated in the Din Daeng clash with riot police almost nightly you can’t even afford to have a proper dream or be hopeful about your job prospects as many expected years for the economy to recover. Also, many want to see a new government as well as greater liberty and equality, particularly in relations to the monarchy institution. They have dreams. They want an equal society where the monarchy is no exception to public scrutiny and can be criticized and held accountable without having to spend a maximum of 15 years rotting in prison under the lese-majeste law. Such freedom and rights exist in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Europe. Preventing them, as the state is doing now, would only fan more republican sentiment.
That many of the youngsters want the monarchy reformed means they dream of a more equal Thailand. Those in power, mostly elderly and in their late fifties, sixties if not older, won’t be around for too long before they expire. Yet these old people kept obstructing the call for change as best they could.
If any generation will inherit the future of Thailand, it’s not the elderly now in power as their years are numbered and they surely will die sooner than later.
The time to stop obstructing the youth to reshape Thailand is now. The youth represents the future and will inherit Thailand’s future one day. Seeing the youth risking injuries and jail for what they believed in should be sufficient for the older generation to pause and ask why some of us are so keen to stop progress when a few decades from now, if not much sooner, they will all be gone.
Why keep denying the dreams of the new generation?