Voices of student dissent must be heard
Since the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) on Feb 21, Thai society has witnessed an escalating challenge to the Prayut Chan-o-cha government by university students across the country. Now a number of school students have joined the bandwagon with a series of flash mobs.
The disgruntled students are frustrated with what they deem as unfair partiality by certain independent agencies. They are fed up with the long tenure of Prime Minister Prayut, who has been in power since 2014, and his regime. And they are calling for an end to the military's intervention in politics, which has included the use of dubious mechanisms, including the contentious regime-sponsored constitution and various questionable election rules, to prolong their stay in power.
The Pheu Thai Party, for instance, was the poll winner in the 2019 election in terms of votes, but it was unable to form a government because of those infamous rules. Not to mention that the dissolution of the FFP, the third-largest party in parliament, gave the Prayut coalition a political windfall as it now no longer has only a razor-thin majority in parliament.
Given such circumstances, the students think they have no other choice but to take to the streets.
The current student protests are the first since the Oct 14, 1973 uprising which led to the fall of the then military dictatorship. The country's democratisation was brief as right-wing extremists retook power in 1976 after a massacre at Thammasat University. The student political movement subsequently plunged into dormancy for decades.
Now that students are once again determined to engage in the country's politics, we should understand them, give them space and support them in their quest for freedom of expression.
In fact, the students' concerns about partiality are more than legitimate. Take a look at the FFP loan case and the V-Luck share saga.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the FFP founder, was slapped with a 10-year political ban and may face a five-year prison term for breaching the Political Parties Act over his loan to the party. Mr Thanathorn was previously stripped of his MP status in the V-Luck share case.
While the businessman-turned-politician received a harsh penalty after a lightning-quick process, other politicians with similar issues, ie loans and shares, remain safe as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court drag their feet over the cases. The EC's investigation into 16 parties with loan issues seems to be moving at a snail's pace; while 32 politicians who are alleged to hold shares, very much like those in the V-Luck scandal, can still perform as probes into them drag on. If this is not double standards, then what is?
Several FFP supporters liken the party's ill-fortune to a football team that is doing well during a match but just as the striker is about to score a potentially decisive goal, the referee blows the whistle for an invisible infringement and issues him with a red card.
With regard to the FFP dissolution, the Constitutional Court could have easily opted for a more liberal, and arguably fairer, interpretation of the law against the third-largest party with 6.2 million votes.
Dissolution is akin to a political death sentence and is the harshest punishment that can be handed down on a party. Such a verdict should only be the result of the most serious of transgressions.
Besides, our political history demonstrates that dissolutions are not a cure for political problems. On the contrary, such a blatant act only deepens a crisis.
The dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai and People's Power parties did not result in the death of their ideologies. They regrouped and ultimately ended up becoming the even mightier, election-winning Pheu Thai Party.
Politically motivated dissolution can strengthen a party. The FFP was a new party which enjoyed tremendous early success, earning 80 parliamentary seats in its first outing at the polls. With its youthful and energetic executive board, it won the hearts of young voters with a striking anti-coup campaign and a strong stance on military reform. Even though it has been disbanded, the party, with the influence of Mr Thanathorn and former secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, can still make a comeback, albeit under another guise. It may emerge bigger and stronger in the next election. And with huge public sympathy, it will probably gain even more seats.
No matter how much the powers-that-be despise the FFP, the inconvenient truth for them is that while they can shut down a brand, they can't disband an ideology. This is what democracy is about, accepting those with different ideas and opinions. The FFP represented a huge group of voters who are against military intervention and the regime's prolonged power.
As there is no longer a place for their representatives in parliament to push for their policies, these young people have decided to take action outside of our so-called democratic framework, despite the risk that it may end in violence and tragedy like the 1976 bloodbath, the 1992 May upheaval and many other colour-coded conflicts over the past decade.
Last week's flash mobs may have been partially driven by a statement by Mr Piyabutr on politics outside parliament, but it is undeniable that frustrations from deep, unsettled political conflicts and double standards against opponents of the military-backed establishments are also a key reason these young people came out to speak up.
Political observers are keeping a close watch on these flash mobs to see whether they amount to more than just a brief political aftershock and might bring about major change like the 1973 student uprising. It is believed that these students will soon upgrade their gatherings into powerful demonstrations. On their agenda will be a call for Gen Prayut to resign, or dissolve the House, to pave the way for a snap election.
Gen Prayut and the government, as well as his supporters, should not block the students as long as they don't breach any laws and the demonstrations remain peaceful. The leaders should avoid provocation or resorting to flimsy legal grounds to silence them. In doing so, the leaders will only fuel anger and despair which will add complications and likely result in violence.
These flash mobs are just the beginning of a new chapter in our political conflict. The students may not have a long-term strategy beyond holding the demonstrations as a way to unleash anger and frustration. But once they sharpen their demands, with clear proposals like setting up a panel for charter amendment to ensure political fair play, they could easily gain momentum.
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.