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The following are excerpts from Thai Enquirer’s interview with Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University and one of the former leaders of the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1976.
To commemorate the 46th anniversary of the Thammasat massacre that killed at least 40 demonstrators who came out to protest against the dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn, we talked with the professor who survived it about the current political situation in Thailand and its democratic future.
TE: What is your view on the current political situation, will there be more bloodshed?
Surachart: At this moment, violence could erupt at any time.
There are a lot of fuels for flame including the students’ call for a more equal society, the ongoing economic crisis and endless poverty.
These issues are ticking time bombs.
Many people were out of jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation with higher living costs.
People were waiting for the pandemic to be over but then they were hit with inflation, this was a double crisis.
If our staple food was bread instead of rice, we would have been in more trouble, but the energy and unemployment crisis are still affecting us.
The new generation’s demands were also being suppressed and it is not over as the issue was just swept under the carpet.
The current situation of protests in Thailand is like a slow-burning match that takes some time to fully ignite, unlike what is happening in Iran where full ignition was reached almost straight away.
TE: Will the current clashes between two groups of people with different ideologies lead to another violence?
Surachart: If you look back at 1976, the crash between the two groups of people with different ideologies was fanned by propaganda and hate speech.
Today, hate speeches were still being used but in a different way so the chance for another massacre like what happened in 1976 is less.
The ongoing clash is the clash between ideologies, it is the clash between the old world and the new world.
This does not mean young versus old as some young people are still living in the old world and some old people are already ready to be in the new world.
The war of ideologies is another fuel that could be ignited, and it could lead to violence.
In 1976, the fuel was ignited by hate speeches that claimed that the students were communists and similar hate speeches are being used now but there is no more war against communism, so the situation is different.
At the same time, the propaganda that is being used now had also failed to ignite the right-wing movement which was interesting.
The right-wing narrative that was being used in 1976 is no longer widespread and the narrative that people are listening to more is the call for a more democratic, free and equal society.
TE: What if there were a lot of protests against General Prayut Chan-o-cha and there were confrontations between protesters and police, will the military use this as an excuse for a violent crackdown or another coup?
For example, Minister of Digital, Economy and Society Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn already threatened that there might not be an election next year if there is a lot of protest against Gen. Prayut and the pro-military government this year.
Surachart: This is another narrative that they are trying to build and people who support the military believe in this narrative.
After the Cold War, the biggest narrative was the fight against communism so I also want to see what their excuse or the narrative would be that they would try to sell for a coup this time around.
If we look at it from a global geopolitical perspective, we already have 2 coups in 2006 and 2014 and it was not accepted by the international community and only some authoritarian governments have approved of it.
In 2006, it was the fight against corruption but the group of generals that conducted the coup and formed a military government is now more corrupted than any civilian governments in the past.
This government cannot be scrutinized where, for example, we have yet to see the asset declaration of its leader until now.
He said that the law was protecting him but now since the 2014 coup leader already accepted that his term started in 2017, when will he declare his assets?
If the military is trying to conduct a similar political marketing scheme with another coup, the number of buyers will be much less, and more people will come out to resist it.
TE: What about the anti-monarchist narrative?
Surachart: Protesters in my generation were the first group of people to be hit with this narrative.
We thought that this narrative will be less frequent, but the current government has been using this narrative to repeatedly suppress protesters.
This reflects the fact that we need to talk.
Thailand is now pushed into a small corner with many problems surrounding it and there is still no way out.
We are in a labyrinth, and we cannot get ourselves out of it and the internal affairs are dragging this country down.
Thailand is a patient in an intensive care, and it looks like we will be in there for a long time unless we can find a way to get out.
We need to talk with each other based on reasoning not who is right or who is wrong.
Myanmar is becoming a failed state and we certainly do not want to be the same, so there must be a neutral stage where people can talk it out.
The new generation cannot be kept in the ideological jail forever and the older generations must accept the fact that the new world belongs to the younger generation as old people like us will not live forever.
TE: What needs to happen for 2 groups of people with different ideologies to be able to safely talk with each other?
Surachart: What we need is a neutral stage or a safe space.
A neutral stage is a stage that allows people who disagree to talk to each other without fear of violence or prosecution.
We do not have this stage at the moment and the reconciliation efforts that were made by the Ministry of Defence that came into power after the 2014 coup were inadequate and even laughed at by many people.
The government and the people in power must be more open-minded.
A reformation cannot be started without the acceptance of the people in power. The people in power must be willing to listen first before there can be any neutral stage for people to talk to each other.
The ongoing political and social conflict is getting worse as society is now more fragmented than ever, there is no political unity here.
TE: Do you think Thailand is a democratic country at the moment?
Surachart: The Thai democracy is arguable.
The country’s transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy did not lead to a democratic country, it led to a hybrid regime.
There is no real democracy here.
This country is a half-democratic regime and the government of Gen. Prayut has pushed it more toward the non-democratic side or an authoritarian regime rather than a democratic country.
All of this was caused by the coup in 2014 which gave us the junta-drafted charter, the rigged election and the formation of the regime party.
The current regime party consists of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and the Senate party.
The election in 2019 was a free but unfair election and this was a very interesting development for political science students like me, but it is also very sad as it is happening to our home.
Thailand’s future political transition towards a more democratic society or democratization is now more complex, cumbersome and it will take even longer to reach.
The Senate party have 250 votes which makes it very difficult for any opposition party to beat them and this was unprecedented.
In order to transform this hybrid regime into a more democratic regime, the junta-drafted charter must be amended, the 20 years’ national strategy must be lifted, the junta’s orders that are still in effect today must be eradicated and the military must have less roles in government.
These four points must be achieved, and it will be very difficult to do.
As I said, the transition toward a more democratic society is now more complex, cumbersome and it will take more time to realize.
Feature photo via นิสิตนักศึกษา