BANGKOK – Stung by a surge of anti-coup protests organised by students in the past week, Thailand's military government has instructed state universities across the country to prevent any further "inappropriate political expression" on their campuses.
Sutthasri Wongsaman, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education, said the measure was adopted after a meeting between the Ministry and the chairman of the military junta, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, on 21 November.
"We have instructed [the officials] across the country to monitor the situation in a more aggressive way, in order to prevent children and youths from displaying inappropriate political expression in the future," Sutthasri said yesterday.
The measure followed a turbulent week in which five student activists from Khon Kaen University interrupted a speech by Gen. Prayuth in Khon Kaen province on 19 November, and flashed the forbidden "three-finger salute", an anti-coup gesture inspired by "The Hunger Games" movies.
On the next day, police arrested two more student activists in Bangkok for attempting to organise a mass screening of the latest installment of "The Hunger Games" trilogy, "Mockingjay – Part One." Another student was also arrested for raising the three-finger salute in the lobby of a cinema where the film was being shown.
The latest public act of defiance against the junta took place yesterday, when eight students distributed leaflets with the text from an anti-authoritarian poem at Thammasat University in Bangkok's historic district, prompting nearby police officers to arrest them.
According to Sutthasri, Gen. Prayuth, who also serves as Prime Minister, has personally instructed her to closely monitor the situation of student activists "expressing their opinions, especially their three-finger salutes."
"I think they have the rights to display political expression, but I also think they must consider whether it is appropriate," Sutthasri told reporters yesterday. "So I have assigned the OHEC (Office of the Higher Education Commission) to remind the universities of these dissenting students to consider about appropriateness, and to bear in mind that expression can be done, but they must also respect the rights of other people."
After seizing power from the elected government on 22 May 2014, the junta, formally known as the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), has banned any public protest against its rule, censored the media, and tried some of those who violate the protest ban in military court, where appeals are not permitted.
The NCPO also outlawed the "three-finger salute" after anti-coup activists adopted the gesture in late May to protest against the 22 May coup.
The student protests against the military junta in Bangkok have largely been coordinated by the Thai Student Centre for Democracy (TSCD) and the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD). However, a majority of students in Thailand have not participated in the anti-coup movement.
Meanwhile, Suwapan Tanyuwattana, Minister of the Office of Prime Minister, said Gen. Prayuth is planning to open a public forum for the anti-coup student activists to voice their opinions.
"We have told the NRC (National Reform Council) and Prajadhipok Institute to study about the forms of public forum that students can discuss and exchange their ideas, so that they express their courage, use their energy, and use their knowledge in the fullest way," Suwapan said. "I expect that in the next several days we will have a clearer direction about this."
The forum would not require a repeal of martial law, which was imposed over the entire nation by the junta in May, Suwapan said.
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