The students in Thailand have come back as a political force; now they must focus and keep the momentum

They said it took a generation to come but that it was finally here. Thai university students, long consigned to the dorms and campuses by apathy and lack of interest, had finally rediscovered their political power.

Political protests in the 1990s, in 2010 and 2014 had not moved them en masse, nor did the military coups of 2006 and 2014. But now, in 2020, with the generals looking to stay in power and utilizing every dirty trick in the constitution to relegate democracy to the background, the students finally moved.

Campus protests erupted across the nations. From Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Khon Kaen to Phitsanulok, Thai students of all persuasions, colors and creeds joined together to march against the Prayut Chan-ocha government.

But while casual observers may have been taken aback by the scale of the campus protests, those that have been looking closely say it has long been brewing.

“This is not… an unprecedented phenomenon. It developed in the initial stages of the post-coup atmosphere [in 2014],” said Dr Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, an Assistant Professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

Historical Context

In 2014, the military staged a coup led by General Prayut Chan-ocha and took power from the democratically elected Yingluck government.

In Kanokrat’s book, “The Rise of the Octoberist in Contemporary Thailand”, she explores the student movement from the 1970s and their continued involvement in contemporary Thai politics. 

“We can see an early scattering of different student movements both in and outside of Bangkok after the coup, both from universities and high schools, such as the ‘Education for Liberation of Siam’ high school movement that was against military conscription, promoted education reform, and opposed conservative rules against the students during the post-coup period,” she said. 

“[For] universities, you can see the student groups such as the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy, rebellious students at Chulalongkorn university challenging conservative regulations, and the anti-mine movement in the Northeast that ended with Phai Dao Din being arrested.” 

These smaller protests eventually precipitated to the mass gatherings that happened in February and March of this year, Dr Kanokrat said.

Student Catalyst 

Although the dissolution of the Future Forward Party could be seen as the catalyst for this new era of student protests, it is about much more than the party itself. 

“We cannot deny that many of the students… align themselves with the Future Forward Party. Even before the protest, many of them went from online to offline to channel their support for the political party,” she said.

But according to Kanokrat, there are two groups of students.

The first group of students are the vocal supporters or individuals affiliated directly with the Future Forward Party.

The second group is simply frustrated with the current state of the country.

“I did not vote for Future Forward and I dont know if I will vote for Move Forward,” one student protester from Chulalongkorn told Thai Enquirer back in February. “But I know I cannot support a government that continues to cheat the people, that continues to act as if they are noble when they are the most corrupted part of our society.”

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha poses for a photo opportunity with Deputy Prime Ministers Prawit Wongsuwan (L) and Somkid Jatusripitak (R) and other members of the new Thai cabinet at Government House in Bangkok on July 16, 2019. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

An Ideological Battle, A Generational Divide

A key demand of both groups of student protesters is the removal of the senators that paved the way to Prayut Chan-ocha retaining the premiership. Under the military-drafted constitution, the former junta leaders are able to handpick the senators who then join with the democratically-elected lower house to select the PM.

It was with little surprise that they picked Prayut.

This constitution is undemocratic and is a legacy of the military government, student activist and leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal told Thai Enquirer in February.

In response to the student protests, senator Saeri Suwanpanon merely said, “They should focus on their studies.”

Many conservative elements within Thai society would have you believe that the students will outgrow their liberalist zeal and that it is merely a generational misunderstanding.

“The pooyai and dek frame helps us simplify the political conflict, but you would not be able to solve it.”

“This phenomenon shows that the student movement goes beyond the generational divide. It is an ideological battle [of] different world views and different groups of people facing a different kind of changing world,” said Kanokrat. 

“If we look at the movements of 1932 and 1973, the catalyst was not the generation gap. The changes of 1932 were the young bureaucrats that brought back ideas from the west (liberalism, democracy, fascism) and changes from 1973 was from those that did not benefit from the conservative hierarchical structure,” she said. “It is a political and social conflict of different groups of people who view the political and social structure differently.” 

“We need to overcome this myth that the young are being disrespectful in Thai society”. 

A banner carrying a drawing depicting Thai army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha and a reference to George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel “1984” is displayed during a gathering at a shopping mall which was broken up by security forces in downtown Bangkok on June 1, 2014. Around 6,000 police and soldiers were deployed across Bangkok on June 1, according to a Thai official, as authorities tried to deter anti-coup protesters who have threatened a day of flashmob rallies in defiance of the army. AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Hard road ahead

According to Kanokrat, the students of 2020 face an even harder road than the students of ’73.

“They face a far greater challenge than the 1970s in terms of the supportive political environment and a much more unified elite, along with a right-wing middle-class mass movement,” said Kanokrat.

“They do not have the supportive international environment of the 1970s, such as the anti-war movement and peace movement that overthrew military and authoritative governments in the west,” she said. “The students have to learn, unlearn, and move beyond the 1970’s movement”. 

A Symbol for Change 

Student movements throughout history often signify change. Yet Thailand’s students have stayed largely silent as the world moved beyond the legacies of the Cold War and onto the challenges of the 21st century.

“Since May 1992, the student movement has not existed,” said Kanokrat.

That is why their coming out in 2020 is so important, she added.

“All the other social groups have been pacified – either by the military autocracy or suppressed. Only the students are left untouched,” she said. “They are the last resort to start the movement, but the student movement alone will not be able to push forward for change.”  

“Of course, there was the legacy of the 1970s, but the reason why people call for the students to stand up is that there are no other social forces that exist in the Thai political arena.” 

What now?

Of course, as the student protests were reaching their climax, the coronavirus outbreak offered the government a ready-made excuse to halt all gatherings.

But even with the respite of little to no politics in the past few months, the government still does not know how to handle the students, according to Kanokrat.

“I think that the government does not know how to deal with the students. If they arrest one, there are so many others and they exist throughout the country, along with the institutional infrastructure that would allow them to organize very quickly. They don’t know how to deal with the student movement if they start to proliferate.”


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