By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — Pro-democracy academics want to shift to a proactive stance in an attempt to restore some political rights amid concerns the junta may attempt to remain in power much longer.
Some 30 academics and NGO activists organized as “Thai Academics for Civil Rights” will meet Thursday through Saturday to review their role and come up with strategies and measures to push back against repression by the military junta against students and scholars.
“In the past we have always been in a state of reaction,” said Anusorn Unno, dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology.
Such measures could involve the setting up of people’s assembly to scrutinize the regime and engage in monthly deliberations of problems and potential solutions.
“What can we do to steal the agenda from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)?” Anusorn said, referring to the formal name of the military junta which seized power in May 2014.
Anusorn said his group of academics, comprising about 400 lecturers both inside and outside Thailand, are best suited to support pro-democracy groups because they are accepted by society in general as having altruistic motives.
Anusorn said his group is counting on the growing disillusionment of groups which used to support the coup-makers, including medical doctors, NGO workers, rubber farmers and some members of the movement created to oust the former civilian government, the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State, or PCAD.
“These people increasingly recognize that paving way for the military to seize power didn’t enable [the country] to progress,” he said. “It wasn’t that clear in the first year since the coup, but the dust has now settled.”
Ghosts of the Past
Anusorn is well aware that due to the past role of academics and students in overthrowing military dictators in 1970s and 1990s, the current military regime is wary of overreacting or using tactics that are overly repressive.
He believes the junta is concerned harsh repression of anti-coup students and academics could lead to a widespread uprising and their eventual demise, as has occurred in the past, and this has informed how they currently behave vis-a-vis toward students and academics.
Anusorn admitted however that the number of anti-coup student activists have dwindled so much compared to the past that they’re now been relegated to serving as just one of the groups opposing the junta.
“Students are just one of the voices now,” he said.
What’s more, said Anusorn, unlike during the Cold War, it’s no longer possible to expect anything like a mass revolution. Nevertheless, the United States and European Union are expected to continue piling pressure on the junta. Due to these factors, Anusorn rules out mass murder by the junta.
He said the goal for the anti-coup academics is to thus “continually raise the ceiling of society’s level of rejection of the junta.”
Anusorn said he’s aware that there’s a limit to the supposed absolute power of the military, and the group looks forward to mounting an offensive in the coming months.
“We must lift the ceiling of fear and keep moving,” he said, adding that this year might even mark the end of the junta.
“The support base of the regime is eroding and simmering conflicts which have been suppressed await to be reignited,” he said, adding that there has been no progress in national reconciliation, national reform, and now the junta itself is embroiled in corruption allegations over the construction of Rajabhakti Park.
“The NCPO can’t move forward. It can’t step back,” he said. “They are simply seeking to keep themselves afloat.”
The junta insists they are asking for more time in power and “request” those who disapprove wait until a general election, currently promised by mid-2017, which Anusorn said makes no sense.
“The regime lacks legitimacy from the very start,” he said, adding that even those who entertained such an excuse are increasingly realizing the junta is not really solving any problems as it clings to power.
“You don’t have legitimacy to ask people to wait from the beginning,” he said. “What you did is to put a halt to [political] mayhem, but the same hatred is still simmering and waiting to resurface.”
Not all are convinced the plan will work out so easily.
“Some academics feel that it’s difficult to find ways to mount effective [moves],” said Pongkwan Sawasdipakd, a Thammasat University political scientist, sounding frustrated. “I don’t know what we can do more than just issuing statements only to find they are ineffectual. … There should be a better strategy than just issuing statements.”
Pongkwan, who is publicly against the junta but not a member of the network, said there’s also disagreement between older and younger generations of anti-coup academics on how to move forward, and many members are just too individualist.
Himself participating in an anti-junta video clip last year, Pongkwan said it’s unrealistic to expect the junta will be ousted by revolt.
“I personally think it’s difficult if we want to oust [the junta],” she said. “They’re clearly in power. Ousting [the junta] requires conflict within the ruling class.”
Taking a realistic yet optimistic approach is Barame Chairat, a member of the network and coordinator of Assembly of the Poor, an NGO which seeks to engage historically marginalized communities in development processes affecting them.
“I agree that we need to launch an offensive because we have been on the receiving end so far,” Barame said. “If we don’t do this, more will suffer.”
Baramee acknowledge that kicking the junta out can’t be done by academics, and the task is up to the masses. Academics and NGO workers like himself can provide the public with information that could convince people to act, however. At the same time he played down the disagreement among pro-democracy academics, saying it’s a normal thing.
“If we do something, move forward, we can build legitimacy, and other academics who are less vocal will eventually join,” he said.
There is a big caveat, however.
“I think [the junta] will try to stay in power as long as they can. And I don’t think until the middle of next year but eight to 10 more years,” he said. “So it’s our duty [to do something].”