Students defy Thammasat University campus protest ban

On Saturday 19 September students cut the small chain that locked the gate into Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus in Bangkok, after a short but unsuccessful negotiation with security guards, and led protesters in. A group of protesters brought down a sign that had been hung in front of the gate the night before that said: “The campus is temporarily closed between 18 and 20 September.”

The anti-government rally led by Thammasat student group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) on 19 and 20 September was a direct challenge to the university after the university administrators had rejected UFTD’s request to use the campus as a rally venue.

By the afternoon on 19 September the campus football ground was flooded with protesters, including a large number of non-student protesters of all ages and backgrounds, despite the downpour. Members of the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts – a faction that supported exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – had travelled from the provinces to the rally.

Standing on a six-wheeler truck, using a loudhailer, Panupong Jaadnok (23), a student leader from Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University, announced their victory in occupying the campus. Later that afternoon student activists led the crowd out of Thammasat to join protesters in Sanam Luang, a large empty ground in front of Thammasat listed as a historical site.

The student-led protests at the weekend were some of the largest in Thailand in many years, and since almost daily protests began in July over demands for a new constitution, the dissolution of parliament, new elections and for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 coup, elected in the disputed elections in March 2019.

Criticism of the monarchy – formerly a taboo subject and chargeable under Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté laws – have also characterised the demands.

Government agencies, the media and the rally organisers variously reported the numbers at the weekend rallies as being from 30,000 up to 200,000.

Thammasat administration bans the rally

The 19 September rally was also an act of defiance against the university. When the Thammasat University administration earlier rejected UFTD’s application to rally on campus, protesters slammed the university for failing to adhere to its historical role of being a “people’s university”.

It also came amid reports that Thai authorities had summoned the heads of universities in advance of the weekend rallies to tell them to stop students demanding reform of the monarchy, though the authorities stopped short of asking universities to ban campus rallies.

Thammasat University issued three new rules in early September: that political demonstrations on campus must be conducted by students and must abide by the constitution and the law; that outsiders wishing to co-organise a rally must seek the university’s permission; and that, to ensure safety, students, organisers, the police and the university must first agree on the organisation of the rally and the agreement must be signed by all parties.

Thammasat administrators had issued a statement on 10 September – a day after UFTD announced their rally plan to the public – rejecting the rally.

In their announcement, the students said they would stay on the campus overnight on 19 September and march to the Government House on the next day. They would later move to Sanam Luang if the campus space was not enough for the number of demonstrators. This was decided despite police warning it would be breaking the law as Sanam Luang is a historical site where demonstrations are not allowed.

Panasaya Sitthijirawattanakul (19), a key UFTD leader, urged university executives to reconsider, saying they would not change to another venue. She also said that the students would continue to speak about the monarchy reform during the rally.

In the end, the rally ended peacefully late at night. A student leader read out the demand for monarchy reform. Instead of marching to the Government House the next day, they submitted a petition to the King’s Privy Council through the Metropolitan Police Bureau chief in charge of the police presence.

Protest leaders placed a plaque in the ground at Sanam Luang, designed to look like the missing plaque of the 1932 political reforms that changed Thailand’s political system from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. It had been removed in 2017.

On 21 September, conservative political activist Tul Sithisomwong filed police reports against three protest leaders – Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, Arnon Nampa and Parit Chiwarak – of lèse majesté under Section 112 of the Criminal Code.

While it remains unclear if they will be charged, the police said they had taken the replica plaque from Sanam Luang as evidence while they were looking into bringing charges against protest leaders.

University administrators in a quandary

Thammasat University has so far not commented on the breach of the campus ban.

Conflicting opinions between two groups of alumni, many of them in very high positions, had put the university administrators in a difficult position even after the decision to reject the campus rally.

Opposing groups had actively lobbied for support from university alumni and outsiders.

For example, Kaewsan Atibodhi, a former Thammasat University rector, who accused students of using the campus as a base to breach the constitution, submitted a list of 2,924 alumni to Thammasat University Rector Kesinee Withoonchart in support of a ban.

Another group of alumni led by national artist Suchart Sawadsri gathered a group of writers, journalists, artists and pro-democracy supporters to submit an open letter to the rector urging for the ban to be lifted.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a Thammasat political science lecturer and respected authority in peace studies, told University World News he thought the rector did her best to respond to the polarisation within the university community. This resulted in its public rejection of the students’ request, while it did not strongly stop the protesters entering the campus and provided facilities such as toilets to the protesters on the rally day, he said.

University concerns about outsider involvement were outmoded, according to some experts.

Chaiwat said technology had changed the relationship between universities and their students and that universities needed to understand the differences between present-day student activists and their predecessors.

“The need for a physical space as a venue to rally has become less important for this generation of students as they are well-equipped with technology. While there were a lot of people joining the students in Sanam Luang, we don’t know how many more were joining them online,” he added.

“The real task of the universities is to provide a space for them [students] to develop themselves in the way they want to, while acting as a reality-check unit to remind them of rules or norms in society from time to time,” he said.

Anusorn Unno, Thammasat’s dean of the faculty of sociology and anthropology and a UFTD advisor, said in an interview with the Thai Public Broadcasting Service on 18 September that he had suggested a dialogue between the university and students to avoid confrontation. But the dialogue did not take place.

He argued that the student rally plan for 19 September “did not show a violent tendency”. The only thing missing was agreement between the parties involved as stated in Thammasat University’s new guidelines on campus protests. That was because the university’s decision had been made before the students managed to invite groups to discuss the issue, he said.

Anusorn said that the student demand for the monarchy reform came from an idea that a constructive, factual and open discussion on the issue is needed to replace gossip and sarcasm which would not lead to any solutions.