BANGKOK — Thai student activists are closely following the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, drawing lessons from the pro-democracy movement abroad as they struggle to find space for political expression in junta-ruled Thailand back home.
Yesterday, activists at Thammasat University held a public forum comparing the Hong Kong protests to the 1973 student uprising in Thailand forty-one years ago.
Before beginning their discussion, the student organisers told a packed audience that Thai authorities had asked them to refrain from criticising the junta’s National Council For Peace and Order (NCPO) during their discussion.
“So today we will not criticise the NCPO,” said Rangsiman Rome, a Thammasat University student moderating the forum. “We will criticise a foreign dictatorship and a dictatorship in Thailand’s past.”
At least five plain-clothed police were seen in the audience, but the seminar was allowed to proceed uninterrupted – a contrast to several recent political seminars that have been canceled or interrupted by authorities for their political nature.
Since seizing power in a coup d'etat on 22 May 2014, Thailand’s military junta has strictly enforced its ban on public protests and political activities in the name of "returning happiness to the people."
Yesterday’s event, organised by the student activist group ‘League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy’ (LLTD), was initially scheduled to take place on Bodhi Court, the site of the 1973 student rally that later spiraled into a full-scale uprising and successfully ousted the country’s military rulers. However, university administrators asked the activists to relocate yesterday’s forum to inside a nearby building to avoid disturbing other classes, an activist said.
The four panelists, which included four LLTD activists and one student from Thammasat's International Relations department, agreed that the key similarity between the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the October 1973 uprising in Thailand is the prominence of student organisers.
The student-led Hong Kong protests broke out last month after China's central government reneged on a promise to allow an open election for chief executive of Hong Kong in 2017. In response, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators have been camping out in Hong Kong's financial district for the past few weeks.
So far, Chinese authorities have refrained from breaking up the protests with force, but many international observers believe a crackdown is imminent.
However, Thammachat Klee-aksorn, an International Relations student, said he does not think China will resort to violence to end the protests.
“Beijing won't use violence, because Hong Kong is the pocket of Chinese elites,” said Thammachat. “Beijing is afraid that violence will escalate the protests in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong activists will use images to discredit the Chinese leaders.”
But LLTD activist Piyarath Chongthep disagreed, pointing to an example from Thai history.
“I don’t buy the "whoever uses violence first loses" argument because autocrats will always find a way to justify their violence to their populace, as happened in Bangkok in 2010,” he said, referring to the crackdown on Redshirt protesters who were rallying in Bangkok to demand a fresh election in May 2010. At least 90 people died in the government-ordered crackdown, but not a single state actor has been punished for authorizing or carrying out the violence.
Another LLTD activist, Worawuth Bootmatrt, cited a second example from Thai history: the brutal attack on Thai student activists in 1976, in which at least 40 people died at the hands of police and a royalist mob that attacked the demonstrators. The crackdown, which took place only three years after the 1973 uprising, is widely regarded as an attempt by the Thai establishment to squash the budding student movement.
“They ‘killed the chicken in front of the monkey,’” said Worawuth, using a Thai idiom. “I fear the same thing will happen in the Hong Kong protests: Beijing will crack down on the movement to scare other groups in China [from acting out.]”
Though the discussion centered on two foreign incidents – one in Hong Kong and one in Thailand’s past – the issues were close to home for the Thai student activists, who have struggled to protest against present day military rule in Thailand. The strongest show of anti-coup sentiment was seen during a string rallies organised shortly after the 22 May takeover, but the movement’s momentum quickly died out after authorities began blockading protest sites and arresting demonstrators.
“Even if Hong Kong protests ultimately fail, they have shown that Beijing is not a mighty god,” said another student panelist, Than Rittipan, in an effort to end on a hopeful note. “If they still retain spirit of liberty and freedom in the coming decades, maybe one day the movement will rise again and see the end of dictatorship.”
Although Thai students have organized several small scale demonstrations since the initial anti-coup movement fizzled out, many of them have been broken up by authorities.
“This democracy lesson is the smoothest one that we have so far, as the military cancelled all of our previous activities” said Rangsiman at the end of the discussion. “Perhaps it is because we notified "the powers that be" in advance.”
He continued, “I'd like them to see that an academic seminar like today does not pose a threat to national security or cause anyone to lose their power. What happened today is the exchange of opinions in a civil manner, which is what a good society needs. I believe everyone who attended this seminar will go home happy. This is the true 'Returning Happiness to the People.'"