Four special branch police officers stood outside Bunkueanun Paothong’s house in Nakhon Sawan asking his mother if they could speak to him. They said the matter was urgent. They wanted to stop Bunkueanun from getting in legal trouble, they said.
Bunkueanun’s family had received a warning from a close family friend that police were after him in Bangkok where he attended university. Bunkueanun had helped to organize and lead student protests at Mahidol University where he was a second-year student studying International Relations.
The family decided it was best if he left the city for a while and returned home. They still found him.
“They asked me if I knew the other protest leaders, they said that the other leaders were getting paid from an outside source and that I did not want to be mixed up in all that,” he told Thai Enquirer by phone.
“Then they said I would be arrested if I wasn’t careful and they wanted to ensure that I stayed out of trouble.”
According to Bunkueanun, or Francis as he is known to his friends, the special branch also asked him to report on his friends and their activities. If he did that, they would ensure that he would not be arrested when the time came.
“I was livid,” Francis said.
A growing concern
Francis’ story while alarming is not unique. Since massive, nationwide student protests began in February against the government of Prayut Chan-ocha, reports of state security officials monitoring, harassing and following student protest leaders have become the norm.
Out of 12 student leaders interviewed by Thai Enquirer, all said they or their families have been monitored or approached by government officials.
The government has not only targeted student protest leaders but the faculties in which they study as well.
One student, who asked for anonymity, told Thai Enquirer that they got to him through his university’s faculty.
“The police did not contact me directly. They contacted the university first and then the university contacted me,” the student said. “The deputy dean from the university called me and told me he would be taking me to the police station to jot down a statement.”
Once at the station, the student was interrogated, intimidated and finally made to forfeit his electronics. They asked for his passwords to his social media including Facebook and Twitter.
“I am very much concerned about the situation, especially for my politically active students” said Dr Titipol Phakdeewanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University. “One of my students was reported by the army’s Internal Security Operations Command [ISOC] to the police for violating the lese majeste law.”
“But this is military freedom, what else can we expect,” Dr Titipol said. “It is very intimidating.”
Another professor at a prestigious Thai university in the heart of Bangkok told Thai Enquirer that government officials have approached members of her faculty to hand in a list of names of student protest leaders and to help monitor their activities.
“They said they wanted to make sure that our kids were safe,” she told Thai Enquirer but asked that her name and university remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “What a load of bullshit.”
According to the professor, while most of the academic staff have refused to cooperate with the state, some staff members who remain sympathetic to the former military junta and Prime Minister Prayut have regular contacts with special branch police and state security officials.
“The government have eyes and ears in every university, trust me,” she said.
A government threatened
The government has denied more than once that it was monitoring or intimidating the students and leaders of the youth protests. But both Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan have warned students to not let their movement be ‘co-opted’ by outside forces.
Ruling Party Deputy Leader Paibul Nititawan echoed those statements when he told Thai Enquirer that students must stay “within the rules and laws” when carrying out their protests.
“The students must not let themselves be manipulated by any politician or political party,” he said.
Despite the government denying that any such program of intimidation exists, several sources inside the coalition and the military told Thai Enquirer that the government was “extremely concerned” at the scale and rapidity in which the students came out to protest earlier this year.
“The military are paranoid of the student movement, so they try to target the students to intimidate them and to shut them up or to prevent them from making any provocative movement,” said Dr Titipol.
The catalyst which sparked the protests was the dissolution of the Future Forward Party by the Constitutional Court which the students viewed as politically motivated and favouring the pro-coup, pro-junta forces in Thai politics. Many students protesting have held placards challenging Thailand’s institutions and the army.
But as the protest was gaining widespread momentum, the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent lockdown shut everything down.
“The pandemic, in some respects, gave the government political breathing space,” said Arun Saronchai, a former journalist and Thai political analyst. “Using the State of Emergency to impose a lockdown, the government was able to stop the protests and cut the momentum.”
A coup mindset
For some student and youth leaders, the program of state harassment is not new but has been reoccurring since the military coup of 2014. Student leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal has been harassed by the state since entering university right after the coup.
Netiwit and his friends have led protests and held events opposing the coup and the military.
“[The state] watched us whenever we ate lunch, asked teachers about our whereabouts, contacted my parents,” he said.
Netiwit said that he was not alone in being harassed, his friends have also been targeted by the police.
“My friends have been targeted by police merely for being a close friend of mine,” he told Thai Enquirer. “It made them very scared.”
The students that Thai Enquirer interviewed say that the recent disappearance of activist Wanchalearm Satsakit in Cambodia has also made them aware of the possibility of the same thing happening to them.
“It just shows you that the state do not care for us, this is not how a democracy should be,” said one student at Thammasat University who asked not to be named. “We know what the dangers are, it is scary but we must keep fighting so that this does not become normal.”
An old normal
While Netiwit and other student leaders have been targeted since the military coup of 2014, youth leaders in Thailand’s three southern provinces told Thai Enquirer that this model of intimidation and coercion has existed for decades.
“The state targets youth leaders and rebellious students here in the south long before they enter university,” said Nayyan, a former youth leader and now a religious scholar in Pattani province. Nayyan asked Thai Enquirer not to print his full name for fear of reprisal by the government.
“The Thai government targets Muslim youth from the moment they study at local madrassas (religious schools). They have informants reporting their movements and their thoughts from their teenage years onwards.”
Nayyan said that the intimidation campaigns, the family visits, these are all normal for the people of the south.
“They have just adopted the model that they had down here and applied to the rest of Thailand. Now they know how we feel every day for the last twenty years.”
Despite these programs of intimidations, all the students that Thai Enquirer spoke to say that they will continue the protests once the coronavirus pandemic lifts.
“We know the fight for justice is not a simple and straightforward path,” said May Jiratanasook, a student protest leader at Chiang Mai University.
“We are not afraid, they can intimidate us all they want, that just means that they are scared,” she said.
Francis agrees and told Thai Enquirer that he has had to sit down with his parents to ensure them that he would continue to do what he was doing was and that it was for a good cause. He also instructed them to always deny requests from the state.
“I’ve had a conversation with my mom,” he said. “I told her, Mom, don’t tell them anything, don’t tell them my location, don’t tell them who my friends are, just pretend you don’t know anything. It is for your safety and mine.”