SINCE the declaration of martial last year in Thailand and subsequent crackdowns on public dissent, criticism against the junta, led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was appointed Prime Minister by a military-heavy national assembly, has been aired for the most part in print and online (despite a newly drafted Computer Crimes Act that includes suitably vague criminalization of the creation and/or dissemination of information deemed harmful to the country).
Prayuth’s zero-tolerance stance to criticism is personal as well as legislated. He has been testy in interviews with the media, throwing a banana skin at a cameraman when asked to face the camera, and threatening other reporters with detention. He hasn’t dealt with foreign criticism well, either. The PM said he was “wounded” after his Thai-style democracy was questioned by the United States as constituting, “significant restraints on freedoms.” Prayuth’s response to the US was largely beguiling, and as he has done so before he engaged in a kind of double-speak rhetoric stating that at heart he was democratic, and, “I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on.”
In spite of the barrage of threats conveyed to the public and media under the rubric of national security, as well as summary detentions of alleged dissidents, the military government and its malleable version of democracy has found what seems like an emboldened opposition in the form of groups of students; students protesting against a number of incidents recently all of which could be called an abuse of human rights.
Anti-coup banners have been seen, and were quickly removed from near to two universities in Bangkok late last month, asking for the fair treatment of student protesters and also asking for a fair democracy. This came after two student activists were sentenced to five years imprisonment – their sentences halved for pleading guilty – after staging a play called ‘The Wolf Bride’ in 2013, that was said to have defamed the monarchy.
Students, and academics, also protested last week following the dismissal of exiled Thammasat University history professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul, one of few academics in Thailand that has consistently breached the narrow parameters of freedom of speech. Prior to this the Thai Student Center for Democracy (TSCD) staged a protest February 14 at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). As well as erecting mock voting tables the students also gave out copies of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, while as a symbol denoting limits on freedom they used the three figure salute seen in the ‘Hunger Games’ films – the book, and the salute, had before this time been suppressed by police to some extent in 2014. Several students were detained by police and one is currently awaiting charges of violating martial law. A spokesperson for the group said that TSCD was the “last group standing” in resistance to the junta government.
Following these protests the military said it was willing to negotiate with protesters, while Army chief and deputy defense minister, Udomdej Sitabutr, said that protests are allowed, but only if they express “positive” views, and act within the law, which, has banned groups of more than five people meeting to protest against martial law.
While the freedom to not express criticism may seem paradoxical, and an abuse of human rights, government General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and Thailand’s representative to the 28th United Nation Human Rights Council that met in Geneva on March 4, said that in an attempt to strengthen national security, the new government had, “given much importance to human rights.”
‘It makes no sense at all’
Than Rittiphan, 22, a student at KMUTT (King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi), founding member of the TSCD, and the person quoted as saying the group is “the last stance” against military rule, told Asian Correspondent that he has been in hiding since the protests.
“I’m really upset after hearing about the verdict of Pornthip,” he said in a recent interview concerning the 2 ½-year jail terms given to Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Pornthip Munkong, 26, on charges of lèse-majesté. “Pornthip is a friend of mine; we were involved in political activities together.”
Than calls the verdict, “an injustice”, saying it violates freedom of speech. “People are convicted but they have no chance to prove their innocence,” he says, adding that because of such long sentences relating to lèse-majesté people are forced to enter a guilty plea. “It is a problem in this country,” he says, “we have no avenue for discourse.”
Than calls the government’s stance on allowing only “positive” criticism “ridiculous”, saying that, “it makes no sense at all.” He also says that he, and other students belonging to the group, won’t give up. Nonetheless, he doesn’t believe that any political party is reliable. The group’s motivation, he says, is to “deny the junta and accomplish freedom in Thailand; freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”
“I think you can’t rely on any political party,” he explains, “People must fight for liberty and freedom; it’s the duty of every citizen to fight for that.” As it stands, he adds, within the present political turmoil, people cannot address the salient problems.
“A lot of people will have to leave this country… The junta see us as criminals.” As for the masses, he believes most Thai people are not behind their movement. He thinks many of the so-called educated classes understand the problems of a military government, but he also believes that “they are only concerned about their finances… only when politics affects their finances do they take action”. He also says that there hasn’t been much support from academics, although he mentions that it was a Thammasart University deputy dean that helped negotiate the release of one of the protestors that was arrested in February.
In light of government threats to crack down on student protestors he says that all TSCD members will accept their fate. “We are aware of the three risks,” he says: “arrest, death, or having to leave Thailand.”
He compares the junta’s ideology to that of North Korean cultural propaganda, an ideology he says that is grounded in Thainess. “It’s an ideology of dinosaurs,” says Than.
(‘Thainess’ is the nebulous concept of being Thai, based on proper codes of conduct and cultural ethos, currently proselytized through the 12 Core Values that the junta created in order to (re)educate the Thai youth.)
“Mixing, diversity, that is Thainess,” says Than, “’Yam Salmon’ is Thainess,” – an eclectic and unconventional take on the traditional spicy Thai salad.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, aka, Frank, 18, is a high school student in Thailand currently entering his final year. Frank has been outspoken about the reformation of the Thai education system, having formed the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance at the age of 16. His views led to him losing his position as Student President of the Nawaminthrachinuthit School, and later being interviewed on national television. After stating that he was “sick of Thainess”, and oppressive school rules, as well as rejecting a nomination for a Youth Award from National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) after questioning the NHRC’s commitment to human rights, Frank has been quiet, in the media at least.
Nethwit told Asian Correspondent that he has not stopped his activism in support of democracy and social justice, explaining that he has been concentrating on doing this through, “cultural work, and also working to build a treasury for knowledge.” Education is key, he says, to creating a more just society. “If we lack knowledge, our movement for democracy will be even more difficult to accomplish,” he says. He is currently the coordinator of the ‘Rise Up Thai Students’ network, and is planning to start a publishing house, as well as a choir for freedom, in the future.
He calls the TSCD “respectable, brave…genuine and sincere in their appeal for democracy”, and although he believes they have the same goals in mind as he, he has his “own way of doing things.” If people are not allowed to voice their opinions, Netiwit believes, democracy can never happen in Thailand, and if there is to be a democracy that has limits on free speech, such as Thailand’s previous failed democracies, then, “that democracy cannot be trusted,” he says. “We live under a dictatorship… This dictator is no better than other dictators we have had in the past; they claim to ‘return happiness’, but they are forcing people not to think for themselves or ask questions, nor do they let Thai society develop and mature. This is their objective.”
He believes that the current form of government will soon be replaced. “The more they squeeze,” he says, “the faster it will break.” He adds that the government’s view is myopic, that the current crisis is due to leaders considering only the “immediate” circumstances. He states that if the government listens to the younger generation, Thai society could see progress in the future, but he admits that it’s “optimistic”.
The clashes in values have grown out of discordance between different generations, he says, but through education he hopes that he can support a younger generation aware of these polarized values, and to find a common ground based on real democracy. “We must understand the past generations, every generation, once they become older will have a strong sense of pride, along with having the benefits they receive from traditions and fear of change,” he says, adding that what one generation thinks is good now, could actually be a hindrance to social progress in the future.
On the matter of Thainess he believes that the, “discourse of ‘Thainess’ isn’t bad as long as we are aware that it is only a discourse”, adding that the meaning of Thainess is not static, immutable, and it must be ready to, “open up and adjust itself”. If you investigate, he says, “The ‘Thainess’ they claim is ours is very much a collection of foreign cultures and values that we have received and assimilated. The military is falsely advertising this concept of ‘Thainess’.” If Thainess is Yam Salmon to Than, to Frank it’s simply, “forcing Thai people not to think for themselves.”
When asked about the meaning of Thai-style democracy, he replies, “I don’t know what ‘Thai style’ democracy is, nor do I know what a ‘western style’ democracy is, I do know that contexts and cultures differ everywhere and we must respect that. Every human being wants to be happy, to have freedom of thought, to speak out, to feel safe, to have human rights. This we must have, no matter ‘Thai style’ or ‘western style’ or whatever other style there is.”
In conclusion he says, “We must eradicate the stigma of social class in Thailand,” although he adds that he will not “ride his hopes” on this happening soon, or when his own generation become the leaders of the country. “The next generations,” he says, “will have to try and build a bridge to a culture of democracy, starting now.”