Two years after the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s student movement has shrunk to a few dozen activists amid a clampdown by the ruling junta on campus activities.
Nonetheless, several small pro-democracy student activist groups in and outside the capital Bangkok have come together in the past year as the New Democracy Movement or NDM, which is beginning to make its presence felt in the run up to a public referendum on a new military-backed constitution, due to take place in early August.
Campus opposition against the regime has been effectively snuffed out by the military regime.
Red Shirt activists, mostly supporters of the democratically-elected Yingluck Shinawatra regime that was ousted in the 2014 coup, had considerable support in rural areas and among more deprived social classes, as well as among some academics and students on campuses.
But the military’s climate of oppression has largely silenced the Red Shirts and many of their campus supporters, and some have fled abroad.
The current student body – mostly from middle-class and privileged backgrounds – has been ‘depoliticised’ and mainly supports the current regime, according to James Buchanan, a lecturer at City University of Hong Kong who is researching the Red Shirt movement.
“Thailand is awash with social, political and economic grievances, which have been mounting steadily in the past 10 years. However, the largely middle-class student bodies in the most famous universities of Bangkok are largely untouched by these,” Buchanan told University World News.
“The very small number of student activists of the New Democracy Movement are the exception.”
The NDM has “bravely come forward to fill the void”, trying to “open a new political space for themselves, freed from the baggage of the ‘colour politics’ that has torn Thailand apart in the last decade”, said Buchanan, referring to the colour-coded divide between yellow-shirt urban middle-class royalist nationalists and their Red Shirt opponents.
A Bangkok-based group known as the Thai Student Center for Democracy held sporadic protests during 2015. At Khon Kaen University in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, a campus-based student group, Dao Din, many of them law students, emerged in 2014 calling for a return to democracy.
Some 30 members of the two groups came together in Bangkok in May 2015 – the first anniversary of the coup – to stage a heated protest.
Calling themselves the New Democracy Movement for the first time, all were arrested and 14 students were held in custody. Although released in July, they still face charges including the serious charge of sedition, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The NDM has continued to use anniversaries and other dates in the calendar to protest against the military. Most notably, a demonstration attracted 200 people on 19 September 2015, the anniversary of the 2006 coup that ousted Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra.
And most recently there was a demonstration at Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus last week, on the second anniversary of the 22 May coup.
Although ‘political’ gatherings of more than four people are now banned, last week’s rally was described in some reports as the biggest anti-junta protest since the coup, attracting an estimated 300 largely peaceful followers.
“We ask the junta to listen to us. That’s all we want,” NDM leader Rangsiman Rome, one of the 14 held last year, said at the rally. Another of the students said that if he did not protest against the regime, “they win, and they can do whatever they want”.
Some protesters wore t-shirts with ‘Vote NO’ in English and staged a mock ballot to cast votes against the draft constitution, which will be put to a countrywide referendum on 7 August.
The referendum is seen by analysts as a major test of whether the NDM can emerge as a relevant force for democracy.
The military has overseen the drafting of the charter to replace the constitution that was discarded after the junta seized power. Controversially, the current draft, if accepted by referendum vote, would have an appointed upper house with a portion of the seats reserved for the military and police.
Last week the National Legislative Assembly passed a referendum bill that included penalties for those trying to influence voters to cast a particular vote. If convicted, people could face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht (US$5,600). The assembly maintained that campaigns for or against the draft could deepen national conflict.
Despite the restrictions on debating the constitution, NDM’s Rome has told local media that the NDM will continue to express its views about the draft and has been holding public seminars and other events, including a forum on the referendum in mid-May at Thammasat University.
“The NDM have tried to make the discussion around the referendum political,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a fellow at Australian National University and author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, students, law and violence in northern Thailand.
Speaking from Thailand, she said: “At the NDM’s seminar on 15 May there was a broad cross-section, age-wise, of society. The NDM constituency is not limited to students.”
“People who refer to themselves as ‘aunties’, ‘uncles’ and ‘grandparents’ are joining the protests because they are concerned about the legacy this kind of government will leave for their children and grandchildren.”
Other NDM members are talking to people in rural areas about the upcoming referendum.
Despite hostility towards such student activism by university management and with the army and the police patrolling universities in the northeast in the run up to the referendum, there is still “a rich seam of discontent to be mined”, Haberkorn said.
“The students have the social and cultural capital to potentially mobilise other people to challenge the dictatorship,” she argued. “They have connections with the broad mass of the people and they are targeting the state and capital, which have become very tightly intertwined under this regime.”
Khon Kaen University-based Dao Din, part of the NDM, has some two dozen active members working with local communities on issues of resource rights, social justice, human rights and equality. Their three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute has since been banned by the junta.
A group of activists have also established a new political party known as the Commoner Party of Thailand, as the voice of the ‘common people’ and challenging the autocratic top-down approach of government.
Despite repressive moves – Dao Din student activists and their families have been summoned, monitored and threatened by the military and police – Haberkorn believes they are beginning to have an impact.
“They have been able to exist for almost a year having a greater voice in society. More people know who they are. It is the most significant protest movement against the military junta to emerge.”
“What students have done since the coup is quite remarkable. They have the potential to become a broader movement.”
“It is the very beginnings of a democracy movement led by students,” she added.
But it could be a long time coming.
Most recently the junta has begun targeting the parents of dissident students, in order to silence young people.
On 6 May the local Khaosod newspaper reported that the Bangkok military court had issued an arrest warrant for the mother of Sirawit Sarithiwat, a student at Thammasat University and anti-junta activist, charging her under the country’s draconian lèse majesté law. Experts see this as a new way of punishing young democracy activists.
The outlook in Thailand for any kind of democracy movement is still bleak at the moment, according to Buchanan, who is not optimistic about the prospects of a broad-based student led movement.
But should the situation change, or a violent junta crackdown provoke a backlash, “a larger movement lies waiting, hiding in plain sight”.
Threats to government critics – and their families
Military orders HE commission to monitor students
Pressure on Thai students, scholars extends overseas
Academics, students flee as military takes over in latest coup
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters