Understand the current student protests in the context of Thailand’s political history

Student protests have been sweeping the nation in the wake of the Future Forward Party’s dissolution, with massive demonstrations at Khon Kaen University, King Mongkut Institute and Thammasat University on Wednesday.

In a protest at Chulalongkorn University earlier this week mask-wearing students crowded the lawn in front of the University’s political science department.

They carried home-made signs in one hand, the other hand lifted defiantly in the three-finger salute that has come to symbolise opposition to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government.

“Or do the people also have to carry out a coup d’état?” one signed asked. “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” another read.

Dr. Puangthong Pawakpan, Assistant Professor in International Relations at Chulalongkorn University, attended the protests that day – protests that coincided with those at Kasetsart University, a day after the Constitutional Court announced the decision on Future Forward.

“The students have simultaneously come out to demonstrate their power, even though they didn’t coordinate anything. Each individual university orchestrated their own protest. But it’s clear that this time that the reason why they’ve been able to come out with such force is because they’re angry.”

But, according to Dr. Puangthong, this anger, and the movement it represents, is very different from anti-government movements in the past.

It is a movement for Future Forward – and party politics – as much as it is against the military.

“The experience of students of this generation is shaped by military rule – and they hold different perspectives from the generation above them or even their parents’ generation.

“Before this, their Chula upperclassmen were on the streets blowing whistles in the name of the PDRC [People’s Democratic Reform Committee] against Thaksin Shinawatra, with the sentiment that politicians were corrupt or evil. The bias of the older generation against politicians blinded them to the danger of the military.”

“This generation, they don’t care what Thaksin did – the politicians that they saw are not like Thaksin Shinawatra. Under the military government, the students were made to feel like they had no hope – they saw a government that was incompetent, ignorant, arrogant, indifferent to the suffering of the people, and one that acted as if it was going to stay in power for a long time. They saw how the constitution was rewritten to ensure this.”

Dr. Puangthong sees Future Forward as a critical factor in this renewed anger. “Without Future Forward, we wouldn’t see this uprising, this anger of the younger generation. They would be weary, but they wouldn’t have anything to protect, they wouldn’t have channels through which to seek hope – and Future Forward is hope, for them, that it can bring politics to a better place.”

While critics have pointed to Thanathorn’s place among the millionaire ruling class, Dr. Puangthong is quick to point out that Future Forward – and what it represents – goes beyond Thanathorn.

“As time goes on we continue to see quality politicians emerging from within the Future Forward Party apparatus, K. Pita, K. Chor, even K. Wiroj from yesterday’s IO [Information Operation] debate – what they all have in common is the ability to speak a language that the new generation can be a part of, the language of people who are educated, who are professionals, who are backed up by data.”

Students have always played a significant role in Thai politics. The 1973 Thai uprising, or ‘October 14’, is seared into the Thai political memory.

Then, the nation watched as crowds of white-shirted students flooded Ratchadamnoen avenue in a protest that eventually led to Thanom Kittikachorn’s resignation. However, the utopian idealism of ‘October 14’ is overshadowed by the memory of ‘October 6’, the 1976 Thammasat University massacre when student protestors were gunned down on campus grounds.

The two Octobers speak to drastically different yet interconnected political moments.

Now, images of white-shirted students once again gathered in protest have had a forceful effect on the Thai public. Whispers of both ‘October 14’ and ‘October 6’ have floated across dining tables and LINE groups. The question being asked is, which ‘October’ will this current moment represent?

According to Professor Puangthong, it doesn’t represent an ‘October’ at all – not yet. “The students need time to learn how to create a movement, to collaborate across universities – the collaboration isn’t currently happening at that level yet.”

“Before ‘October 14’ itself, there was a lot of movement, particularly intellectually: there were seminars, books were published, there were networks of communication among students of different universities, learning camps were organised – it didn’t happen in just one day.”

“We need to give them time,” Professor Puangthong counsels, but she believes the protests will not die out.

“What will continue to drive these student protests is the behaviour of the government and the political establishment. The government may be worried, but they don’t have the ability to adapt their behaviour, and they’re going to keep doing things that anger the younger generation.”    

It seems, in Professor Puangthong’s analysis, that this may be a good thing. At the very least, it will sustain student anger long enough for them to develop a fully-fledged movement.

“To fight against a dictatorship is to fight the long fight, and students have to learn how to work with one another, have to know what to do when they are suppressed – because I believe after this, the government will find ways to suppress them, they will not let students freely use university property.”

For older Thais who have lived through the Red Shirt, Yellow Shirt and PDRC protests amidst two military coups, a sense of political fatigue pervades discussion on the latest student protests. But regardless of their merits or faults, the protests carry with them an air of inevitability.

“Watch closely – the students won’t give up that easily. They will find ways to continue to do things. It won’t end here.”

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