At first, people barely noticed them. But then a group of students - calling themselves the Dao Din - fell to their knees in front of a military line about to crack down on villagers fighting against mining in the Northeast.
Slowly people learned more about them, and realised that their rebellion was not merely against the coup, but embraced a wider range of policies and social issues that were of concern to everyone.
Since the 2014 coup, a number of student groups such as Dao Din, the New Democracy Movement (NDM) and the Liberal League of Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) have increasingly run protests against the junta. They have come up with several symbolic activities signifying their discontent toward the regime.
“The movement has been ignited by the coup,” said Rangsiman Rome, a key member of the NDM, one of the most active student groups at present.
Rangsiman said the students could not tolerate abuses of power – such as tearing apart the 2007 Constitution and allowing members of the junta to go unpunished.
They were eager to fight for what “should be” rather than accept what “will be”, the 24-year-old Thammasat law student said.
And while the movement has put the students at great risk, they have turned out without thinking twice. They are young and do not have the responsibility of adults, he said.
Rangsiman said protesters have run their activities consistently, but they were not in the news as they were “small players” in society before the 2014 coup.
“In 2013 we protested against the amnesty bill proposed by the previous government,” Rangsiman said, referring to Yingluck Shinawatra’s proposed bill that many feared could have paved the way for the return of her brother, ousted ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra.
More recently, the NDM group managed to arrange an event on May 8, protesting against the arrest of eight administrators who ran a Facebook page making fun of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Amid political turmoil, students across the country are increasingly aware of their roles as citizens, as revealed by Khon Kaen University’s Dao Din student activist Panupong Sritananuwat.
His group has worked with villagers for more than 12 years. Their activities involve environmental issues and educating people on their rights to protect the community.
To fight for what they believe in, this group of students has spent a lot of time living in villages affected by mining, fighting for them, and confronting the military and mining operators.
“The junta’s administration has brought about disputes between the community and state authorities, in regard to environmental concerns,” said Panupong said, in reference to a mine that allegedly damaged the environment in Loei province in the upper Northeast.
Natthisa Patthamaphonphong, from Chulalongkorn Community for People (CCP), said the students wanted to demonstrate they cared about the country. The CCP has joined many anti-coup activities to demonstrate that members do not want to be blamed by the public for only caring about their studies but are largely ignored by society, she said.
Their campaigns, the students claim, were driven by pure ideology, so trying to discredit their movement was “in vain”.
The students challenged emerging allegations that their activists are insincere after people questioned whether they were sponsored by particular political factions.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a long-time security lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, and national security adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, said it was inevitable for such questions to arise.
Panitan, who has been close to a number of student activists, said the students come out during sensitive times when the country is politically divided. Opposition groups aim to use the students’ activities to attack their counterparts by saying the students are financed by their rivals.
However, the public needed to keep an eye on youth-led movements to determine in the long run whether they are independent or not, he said.
If the students “continually” and “honestly” run activities, and stand firm on their stances, the adviser said, the public would see the truth.
Suriyasai Katasila, a former political activist and deputy dean of Rangsit University’s College of Social Innovation, said not only would continuity prove students’ honesty – the nature of their activities would reveal that too.
Some activities might lead the public to conclude that the students are playing games for different political blocs, he said. Students should assess the situation and carefully tailor their activities accordingly, the deputy dean said. “Today’s political condition is so complicated that students cannot straightforwardly do whatever they want, like students did in the past, in 1973,” he said.
Thailand saw an uprising on October 14, 1973, when students rallied and protested against the dictatorship of the military-led government.
Both Panitan and Suriyasai agreed that current conditions are far more complex.
At present, they said, a number of student political groups have emerged to run activities based on various issues, such as the environment, civil rights, public administration and politics – not merely opposing dictatorship as in 1973.
With broadened issues, the students’ power appears weaker and the present education system is also to be blamed for lessening student power, Panitan said. Young people tend to focus more on studies and future jobs, he added, while only a few are turning out to fight for society.
Despite that diminished power, Panitan said students had emerged with the help of several platforms, especially social media, with outlets utilised to rally supporters and encourage young people to protest.
“They should consider if their movements are appropriate and favourable for the society or not, otherwise the public will wonder about [the purpose of] the movements,” the professor said.