BANGKOK — Campaigners who spent much of the past five years leading anti-junta protests were divided on Thursday over whether they should do the same in response to parliament electing junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha to a second term in office.
Now that Prayuth is expected to relinquish his junta post – and the absolute power that comes with it – activist leaders can’t agree on what to do next. Some say the public’s appetite for street protests has been exhausted, while others believe it’s high time to renew citizens’ street-level political participation.
“I don’t see demonstration as a tool anymore,” said Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, a familiar face of the pro-democracy movement, in an interview.
Street protests should be less frequent, she argued, because some activists fear they may play into the junta’s hands by continuing to organize rallies. Such rallies have been painted by the junta as chaotic and threats to peace and security.
“Protests have been made into something scary. The National Council for Peace and Order has succeeded,” Nuttaa said, using the junta’s formal name. “Today, holding street protests is not the answer.”
After years in the political frontline, Redshirt agitator Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich has also called it quits – at least for now. Anurak, who was beaten by unidentified men in May, said the assault wasn’t a factor in his decision.
“I have reached a saturation point,” Anurak said. “It’s time to change paths.”
The activist said he plans to form a new campaign group by July.
But activist-turned-politician Rangsiman Rome said he believes people should still exercise their rights by taking to the streets and making their voices known.
“I think protests are a tool for the people’s struggles,” said Rangsiman, who now represents the Future Forward Party in parliament. “It’s the only tool they can directly employ to protect their liberty.”
While the junta banned protests after the 2014 coup, rallies and demonstrations occasionally flared up during Prayuth’s tenure. Organizers and protesters who defy the ban often face prosecution.
Three young men who helped lead such protests agree resistance will have to continue.
“I don’t think people should stop street activism,” Parit Chiwarak, a 21-year-old Thammasat student, said in an interview. “There is a need for a new wave of activism.”
“I don’t think we can stop,” said Sirawith Seritiwat, aka Ja New. “But from now on, we may also communicate with opposition parties in parliament.”
Sirawith spoke a week after he was assaulted by a group of assailants while leaving a rally to urge the junta-appointed Senate not to intervene in the lower house’s vote for the prime minister. The Senators proceeded to do so anyway last night.
“If we are afraid then it’s like they win. We shouldn’t give up,” Sirawith said when asked about the possibility of campaigners being targeted again.
Fellow activist Netiwit “Frank” Chotiphatphaisal sees a blessing in Prayuth’s victory: he believes direct action will come with fewer risks of persecution.
“People’s politics will return. People will go onto the streets. It’s less risky now,” Netiwit said, adding that his future campaigns will focus on amending the junta-sponsored charter and ending compulsory military conscription.
Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra