Asking the experts about the historical context of today’s student protest

It was thought that the student protests that took off in February and March earlier this year would lose momentum due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, after two months of continuous rallies, the student-led protests have shrugged off doubts and put real pressure on the government.

We caught up with Dr Kanokrat Letchoosakul, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University to find out more about the student protests and its place in the Thai historical context.

Campus protests

“This is the first student mass movement since the 1970s. Since October 14 1973, we have not seen anything like this before”, said Dr Kanokrat Letchoosakil. 

According to Kanokrat, the role of student protests after the events of October 6, 1976 has been to legitimizing other movements rather than playing a major role in those movements themselves whether it is the red shirt rallies or the PDRC rallies.  

Kanokrat said that today’s protest movement is also quite different from the 1970s in the scale, degree, and quality of the protests.

“There are three aspects to this; first of all, the diversity. We have never ever seen groups with these diverse agendas and demands. During the 1970s the student movement played a role as a political movement, pushing the agendas of adults and pushing the mainstream political issues…. But none of them focus on the diverse demands of the students, of the youth themselves. This is the first movement that the students focus on the diverse agendas, problems, and ideas of the younger generation”. 

“The students are also addressing a wide range of the political, social, and economic problems in Thailand. We have talked a lot about how this country is a sick old man, but did not realize that this would be the natural conclusion. And these three major protests that took place (July 18, August 10, August 16) show us that the tip of the iceberg that we have seen for a long time has now surfaced”.

“The third is the degree of how younger groups of students stood up for their rights. We have never seen high school students becoming an independent organizer and agenda setters for Thai society. I interviewed the student leader in the south of Thailand and he was from eight grade, and this is becoming a pattersn of not just high school students but also secondary school. This is something we have never ever imagined.”

Supports from the Red Shirts 

Since the protests began, there have been some support from red shirt groups but not in any kind of large numbers.

Kanokrat told the Thai Enquirer that student leaders in the northeastern Thailand wanted the support from the red shirt movement, those that were directly affected by government measures. But it would be difficult for the red shirts to join the movement for two main reasons; political suppression and concrete goals. 

“We see that the group that support the student movement are mainly the urban middle-class red shirts. But what the students want are those from the rural areas. This is difficult because the local red shirt leaders, since the coup in 2014, have been visited by security officials monthly and also whenever student protests are taking place. The red shirt protesters are worried about what they will get from joining. This is not about money but about the agenda directly concerning their [livelihoods] because they are vulnerable people”. 

Influence of political parties

“I interviewed three groups; political parties, student leaders, and participants. When asking the political parties whether they are supporting the student movement, they said they want to, but they are aware that it is not easy.

A direct connection to the student movement would lead to political penalties such as the political parties being dissolved and its members banned from politics. In Thailand, their is a conspiracy mindset brought about by the Cold War.

Already there are accusations towards the opposition political parties that they are increasing their political legitimacy by buying or paying for the protests to delegitimize the opposition or use the mass movement to legitimize themselves s it is hard for the political parties to provide financial support for the protesters.”

“The student leaders are also aware that if they received money from the political parties, they would be seen as illegitimate by the conservatives and the government as being backed or manipulated”. 

This doesn’t mean the students don’t want support in other aspects.

“On the contrary when you talk to protesters, they say that they would love to see the political parties support the movement. For the younger generation, the political party is a part of their political identity. Many students told me that they voted for Future Forward and that they should come to the streets or at least support the mass movement because they voted for them into parliament and now they are suffering on the streets”. 

“This shows that the political parties are not behind the protests. But we need to reassess the relationship between the political parties and ordinary citizen, which the older generation and the younger generation think in totally different perceptions”, said Kanokrat.

The question of financing

Kanokrat told the Thai Enquirer that the student leaders are very aware that to receive funds from a single source, such as political parties and single independent private groups, which would be risky for both themselves and their reputation.

Many of these groups, such as the Free Youth and Free People, which started two-three years ago (but not in name) started selling political critical shirts as a model for fund raising Kanokrat told the Thai Enquirer 

“But the Free People, they were surprised that it was all from donations”. 

“But the main issue that people have is the stage that was organized on August 10 at Thammasat Rangsit Campus. This was the collaboration between different groups, not only the Thammasat and Demonstration group, but also the Dome Revolution, the Student Union of Thailand, and the Thammasat University Student Union. From these different groups they are able to draw a lot of financial resources. They have worked independently and collaboratively.”

Handling of the security forces

“My observation is that the Thai security officers are quite shocked. They do not know how to deal with the youth group which is not afraid of the security measures”.

Kanokrat raises the example that after the protest on August 16, where protest leaders marched to Samranrat Police station to see if they would Abe arrested.

“This shows that the security officials not understand how the students are coming up with different methods against the authorities. We can look at this in two aspects; firstly, the authorities are still trying to understand the new methods the students are using. Secondly, is that the security officials would continue to allow the protest to be organized and to demonstrate in order to release the tension. But it would not end there because if the government does not respond to their demands or show sincerity to their demands, the students would push further with their demands. It would not end there.”

Echoes of October 6

With the student movement gaining traction, it is noticeable that there has been a rise of pro-establishment supporters,.

Kanokrat told the Thai Enquirer that after observing the many of the pro-establishment protests, she has not seen the state mobilize mass right-wing support effectively. 

“It seems that the state themselves have not seriously mobilized the mass right-wing support, unlike the 1960s and 1970s where the Thai state under the support of the United States during the Cold War and the anti-communist campaign were able to systematically organize grassroot ultra-right-wing supporters, such as the village boy scouts in the rural areas to the militant group of the red guar, which the state supported financially and politically”.

“When the students are asked whether they fear any violence from their ideas, they answered that they do not understand why would there be violence because they debate and have lots of disagreements with their families and friends but violence never happens. So, they question who will use the violence. For them the lessons they learned from October 6 is to ask the authority rather than ask themselves on who will use violence.”

A force for change, but how?

“When asking the students on how will their protest will bring change, they believe that their generation will play a crucial role because they believe that they control the knowledge and are very confident that they have legitimacy to make this change happen, but they do not have a clear idea on how to do it.”

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