Opinion: Lest We Forget: The Movement Changed, The Struggle Continues

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 “Francis” Paothong

I was a part of the movement calling for democracy that began two years ago, in the midst of the ill-advised dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party back in February 2020.

Much has happened since then. People who led the protests, including myself, were forced to cease their active engagement with the pro-democracy movement. The protests seemed dead in the water, although some had tried bringing them back, without much success or a follow-through strategy of sorts.

What happened? Was it inevitable? And, the most important question of all, “what now?”

To my eyes, and the eyes of many who helped organize protests back in the day, the lack of coordination and follow-through was one of the main reasons why protests and demonstrations had failed to elicit the much-hoped response. The demands made by many, including the college students from Thammasat University and elsewhere, could have been met if they had a robust strategy on how to enforce such demands.

In other words, if the protest leaders were bold enough, in their actions, to back their demands with actions to occupy key government ministries or bureaux, or other actions on the same levels such as these, then there’s a certain hope that these demonstrations might have yielded results.

The lack of coordination, or even of planning, could be stemmed from the simple fact: most protest leaders were only college and high school students. The fact that hope of the entire movement struggling for democracy was suddenly thrusted upon many of them gave them the limelight as well as the superiority complex upon which they have no way to mitigate.

Many of them fell to the same trap that a leader could have felt at any given time when they attained popularity and control. These facts, combined with constant dangers of imprisonment and of their own lives, completely isolated them mentally and emotionally, which led to irrational and sometimes downright irresponsible actions that we have come to see. Many, including myself, failed to see such a fact at the time, but it was inevitable that even the most intense heat would eventually burn itself out.

Such desperate actions were nothing new, however. It was the result of what Thailand’s tone-deaf and dictatorial establishment has done to all of us. Years of conditioning and conforming to authoritarian and submissive beliefs have left us all dead inside, yearning and hoping towards better things.

With what happened in the past two years, some might even find it more appealing to offer their creativity and intelligence to other countries that actually value them for what they are. And at this point, it is hard to blame any one of them.

What happens now? One might ask. The movement, in protest form, is dead. Yet, the struggle for democracy in Thailand never completely ceases. Many have begun looking for other ways to bring about change on their own terms.

Some look towards the opposition political parties to do just that. Some work with civil society organizations. Some, like myself, worked in the Student Governments in their universities, bringing about democratic changes within the confines of their own institutions. The movement may have changed, the struggles and the tenets to bring about democracy stays the same.

Now, it is about playing the long game. Bring about freedom and democracy one step at a time. While for most of us, we want democracy restored, freedom respected, and liberty ensured at this moment without delay. We must not delude ourselves of that notion. We must recognize that for a country that has been conditioned to obey and respect authorities for so long, one cannot battle centuries-old institutions and traditions within years, or even decades.

Like the black people of South Africa struggling against Apartheid, we too must endure the harsh years ahead of us, the hope shall not fade away as long as we have the audacity to hope, daring the fears to dream for a better country.

The movement is dead, long live the movement.

About the author

Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong was a student activist from Mahidol University and was accused of harming Queen’s Liberty during the October 14th 2020 protest. Currently, he serves his university’s Student Council as its 45th President.