Universities tread fine line between student protests, state control

Political tensions in Thailand have escalated after student protesters demanded reforms to the monarchy at a rally on 10 August. The 10-point demand, read out in front of thousands of protesters on Thammasat University campus in Bangkok, touched upon one of the country’s most delicate issues, considered taboo by the public.

The demand for royal reform, as up to 4,000 rallied at the Thammasat campus, added to previous student demands for political reforms in almost daily rallies at universities and schools since 18 July. It is seen as risking violating the country’s draconian lèse-majesté – insulting the monarchy – laws, which are punishable with up to 15 years in prison.

The protests also poses a challenge to the role of universities as a shelter for freedom of speech for students, experts say, with universities having to negotiate a fine line between supporting student freedoms and conforming to the demands of the state.

Students’ political demands in the past months have included the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the dissolution of parliament, the drafting of a new Constitution and an end to government intimidation of activists exercising the right to freedom of expression.

General Prayuth has said that the Thammasat rally “went too far” but refused to directly comment on the incident.

The Thammasat rally was held at a delicate time as the criminal court had earlier issued 15 arrest warrants against students and others who attended a previous peaceful protest in Bangkok on 18 July organised by the Free Youth Movement. That was the largest political protest in Thailand since the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth to power.

So far, a human rights lawyer and two students have been arrested on multiple charges.

The arrest of student activist Parit Chiwarak (22) on 14 August on charges of sedition – which can carry up to seven years in prison – and breaching internal security rules by co-organising a large student protest in July, drove Twitter hashtag #SaveParit to 1.6 million tweets that night.

Parit was released on bail on 15 August.

Universities caught between students and state

Universities are struggling to negotiate between the rights of students and state control.

Thammasat, for example, had provided a venue for the student rally on the grounds that students were free to state their three political demands. But the demand for royal reform prompted the university to issue an apology for allowing an issue so sensitive to public feelings to be mentioned without its prior knowledge.

Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor and deputy rector at Thammasat, said in a Facebook statement that although the university approved the use of its venues to express political opinions, such expressions must be within the boundary of the law. “Organisers should exercise caution on sensitive matters that could lead to social division,” Prinya said.

After an emergency meeting called by the Thammasat University council shortly after the 10 August rally, the university issued a statement affirming the constitutional monarchy system while supporting the rights of students to freedom of expression under law and the Constitution.

On 15 August nearly two dozen Thammasat law academics called on the government to stop using the law to deprive students of the basic right to protest peacefully, and called for tolerance and open debate.

Meanwhile, more than 500 academics from universities in Thailand and overseas signed two separate statements supporting Thammasat students’ free speech and demanding that the university support student freedom of expression. They include a statement organised by the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights, signed by over 350 academics.

Another elite public institution in Bangkok, Chulalongkorn University, later rejected a student application to use its campus as venue for a rally on ‘student and community safety’ grounds. Students held a rally in the compound of the university despite a ban. Some 14 law scholars at Chulalongkorn issued a statement on 15 August supporting the right of students to rally on campus.

A group of students at Mahidol University said it would go ahead with a campus rally next Tuesday despite the university not giving permission, the Bangkok Post reported.

Thailand’s Minister for Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Anek Laothamatas told the media that universities would not prohibit student political rallies on campuses, but would not allow any content that referred to the institution of the monarchy.

Students violating the rules would have to be responsible for their actions based on the Constitution, he said. Also, universities needed to be strict with students in this respect and “take responsibility” if they failed to act, Anek said at a meeting on 14 August with university presidents including from the universities of Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, Thammasat, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Silpakorn.

Political authoritarianism a root cause

A senior university lecturer said she had noticed a sharp increase in political interest among university students from 2017 onwards. Many of them were in their teens during the 2014 coup and entered university during the premiership of coup leader Prayuth after the 2019 elections.

Young Thais who have grown up in a past decade characterised by political turmoil, including violent street protests and a military coup d’état in May 2014, have turned to social media for political knowledge.

A Thai-language Twitter hashtag that translates into English as “Let it end in our generation” is widely used by politically alert youth who see their generation as the one to change fundamental social and political problems, which they say are caused by corrupted politics.

“Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lèse-majesté for peacefully expressing their views,” said Human Rights Watch in an 8 August statement.

“Thailand’s anti-democratic trend has intensified over the past five months, as Thai authorities have used state of emergency measures implemented to control the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists

Young people speak out

A group of six new graduates and masters degree students from Thammasat University, aged between 23 and their early 30s, told University World News on condition of anonymity that economic and livelihood uncertainty led to their political revolt.

The younger generation, they said, shared a sentiment that problems such as unemployment, inadequate social welfare and social injustice were caused by political authoritarianism which led to corruption and abuse of power.

“Our demands can be boiled down to one point. We need a system that guarantees equality and support for our livelihood and the livelihood of the younger generations in the long run,” a 27-year-old male student told University World News. He said he started following politics while he was in high school.

“I don’t know if I can get a job after finishing my degree. If not, I have no idea what to do to support myself,” said a 24-year-old student whose father is struggling with his business due to the impact of COVID-19. “Many of us don’t want to get married and have kids because we don’t think we can afford it,” added a 26-year-old female student.

Their anxiety is well-grounded. Since March this year government measures to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic have dealt a blow to an already-ailing economy.

According to the Bank of Thailand, the country’s economy is likely to contract by 8.1% by the end of the year. The Federation of Thai Industries announced that unemployment caused by the prolonged COVID-19 crisis could reach eight million by the end of 2020 – a sharp increase from 3.3 million in July. Ongoing layoffs in a number of industries will make it difficult for graduates to find jobs in years to come.

Online awakening

The student campaigns have gained momentum in recent months, triggered by the banning of the Future Forward Party in February this year. The party, seen as an alternative to the military-dominated Palang Pracharath party, was dissolved for allegedly illegally borrowing money from its tycoon leader.

University students began to hold flash mobs and small gatherings. As the protests mushroomed from one campus to another, including some high schools, students shifted their attention to various social and political issues.

Some rallies expanded from campuses to public domains, joined by non-student supporters. The most recent rally, at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 16 August, gathered more than 10,000 protesters, according to police estimates, while the organisers said it was more than 20,000.

But Thai youth expressed their defiance online years before they took to the streets. Twitter has become the main platform for political communication and information exchange among the young. Political campaigns are effectively conducted via hashtags that can spread easily to the public in a short period of time.

A 23-year-old female student said she started using Twitter in her teens and now sees it as her source of political awakening. A 25-year-old male student added that the anonymity of Twitter helped him freely express opinions without being scrutinised by his parents.