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SPECIAL REPORT: Junta grapples with reborn student movement

big read May 29, 2018 01:00

By KAS CHANWANPEN
THE NATION

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ATTEMPTS TO SNUFF DISSENT HAVE FUELLED NEW GENERATION OF DEMOCRACY ACTIVISTS



THE MILITARY’S return to power with the 2014 coup has also seen the reawakening of a political force that had lain dormant during more than a decade of colour-coded political conflict.

The previous coup in 2006 saw the launch of the pro-Shinawatra camp, whose red shirts have painted one half of the political spectrum over the past 12 years. With the yellow shirts occupying the other half, the result was a country apparently sharply divided into two camps. But the advent of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) triggered a seismic change in the political landscape.

The arrival of the junta unexpectedly poked the student movement, which had been shelved after “Black May” crackdown in 1992, back to life again.

In 2014, the coup-makers were quick to snuff dissent, summoning and detaining political activists from all sides under the pretext of keeping the peace and “returning happiness to the people”. But that suppression gave rise to a new group, who described themselves as the “innocent force” independent of a red-yellow divide that is anchored in established political factions.

The yellow shirts were viewed as representing the elite, middle-class establishment while the red shirts were mostly linked to the Shinawatra camp.

With both factions’ prominent leaders safely locked up in military barracks, the NCPO was instead faced with an unknown group: young people who gathered peacefully and in small numbers but were firm in their defiance of the non-democratic regime. They used public places such as large department stores, the Skytrain, and crowded skywalks to conduct symbolic activities such as reading banned books, wearing black, even eating sandwiches or merely standing in silent vigil.

The informal campaign was first led by students from the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) and the now prominent pro-democracy activist Sirawith Seritiwat (Ja New) who was studying political science at Thammasat University and a key member of its Sapha Na Dome (Dome Front Agora) student club. The name was borrowed from a student group involved in the 1973 uprising against dictatorship.

Ja New spread the call through social media, using his Facebook page to urge others to join peaceful activities to demonstrate opposition to the coup. The group have since dubbed themselves Resistant Citizen, whose leaders also include human rights lawyer Anon Nampa.

The latest student uprising has seen activists arrested and charged by order of the ruling junta, which enjoys a tight grip on power. The students quickly became familiar with offences ranging from computer crime to sedition – a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

But their spirit of dissent has spilled out beyond Bangkok, as more people emerge in solidarity with their pro-democracy message and against the NCPO.

Less than six months after the coup, junta chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha got his first taste of youthful opposition to military rule during his visit to Khon Kaen. A group of seven Khon Kaen University students calling themselves the Dao Din (Star and Earth) Group showed up at a reception for Prayut and flashed the three-finger salute made famous by Hollywood blockbuster “The Hunger Games”. The film’s protagonist uses the gesture to express defiance against tyrannical rule.

The students were arrested on the spot. The junta, meanwhile, was making headlines around the world for locking up people for holding up three fingers and eating sandwiches.

Despite its absolute political and military power, the NCPO has faced a constant challenge from these minor and scattered student groups. Intolerant of criticism and dismissive of foreign concerns, the junta has done all it can to silence them, ranging from lawsuits to intimidation via visits to activists’ homes or offices by military officers.

But the NCPO has also suffered blowback from its actions against activists. What some called a game-changer came with the arrest of 14 students for demonstrating against the coup on its first anniversary in 2015.

The protesters were mostly “unknown” members of the Khon Kaen-based Dao Din Group and LLTD. But the imprisonment of Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, or Pai Dao Din, and Rangsiman Rome turned anonymous students into celebrity figureheads for the campaign against the military-led government.

The students went on to form the New Democracy Movement (NDM), which has spawned several other pro-democracy groups as the momentum against the coup-installed regime builds.

This network also includes independent activists such as Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Parit Chiwarak, political science students from Chulalongkorn and Thammasat University respectively.

Criminalised for their actions to restore democracy, the students |continue to receive strong media attention both at home and abroad. With them has come the rebirth of a movement now once again considered a significant challenge to the military junta.