Student rallies need careful handling

Student rallies need careful handling

The wave of student "flash mobs" has been spreading fast in Thailand's universities and high schools. It began on the second day after the Constitutional Court on Feb 21 ordered the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) and banished its executive committee members from politics for 10 years at the Pridi courtyard in Thammasat University, Tha Prachan campus, with a few hundred of students attending.

But in less than one week, flash mobs have spread like wildfire to many universities, colleges and now secondary schools, thanks to the advent of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook which connected the students by the touch of a smartphone and brought them together at each campus. Most joined the rallies voluntarily and the crowd at each site grew bigger as days went by.

The rallies have been peaceful so far although there were no real leaders at each protest site. Each group appears independent, but they all share a common stand -- no to military dictatorship, prolongation of power by the former junta leaders led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and yes to justice and freedom of expression.

The cries for justice for the Future Forward Party at the beginning of the flash mob have extended to demands for the resignation of the government and death of the dictatorship.

The student rallies, so far confined to campuses, are remarkable after so many years of relative quiet. I don't remember seeing such a phenomenon since the "October 14" student-led uprising in 1973. But some hot-headed students have started talking about taking to the streets to push for their demands.

Whether this phenomenon is just a flash in the pan or a sustainable movement that leads to political changes or violent confrontation remains to be seen. But it should serve a wake-up call to the government that it has to tread carefully and must not reject the student demands outright.

During the censure debate, the prime minister said he had no grudge against the students, but warned them to stay clear of the revered institution. If he has lent an ear to the rhetoric of the students or seen their messages, he will know none of them has touched on this sensitive subject. So to make such a claim is pure imagination stemming from his bias against the students.

One nagging question is what is next after the flash mobs being staged separately and independently across the country? Honestly speaking, this type of protest cannot last or even if it is sustainable, it lacks the punch or power to effect any political changes. Sooner or later, it will just fade away.

Beside their will and desire for a better Thailand, the students who organised the rallies lack the strategy, the coordination, the collective leadership and experience to lead the kind of protest that will have an impact. Do not expect the government to succumb in a panic because of mass protests.

At its peak, the now-defunct People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by politician Suthep Thuagsuban claimed several million protesters and yet the Yingluck government did not resign or collapse even though rendered dysfunctional. Another example is the "October 14" event. The Thanom-Prapas-Narong regime would not be ousted until Gen Kris Sivara, then deputy army commander in chief, threatened to rebel.

Funding is another important factor to sustain a massive protest. The PDRC is said to have spent 1.4 billion baht to mount its mass protest against the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from November 2013 to May 2014 before the coup which put an end to the administration.

One reminder for some of the flash mob organisers. Do not use the derogatory word "Salim" as a reference to people who think differently from you because it is unwise and you will unnecessarily turn them against you. One recent song sprinkled with the world "Salim" to taunt those thinking differently is a hate song that may draw laughter, but at the same time, may backfire. And it is no time now to create an enemy. And beware of some politicians who want to piggy-back on the student movements because they have their own agenda, or your "pure power" movement will be contaminated.

Another warning is the threat of the Covid-19 virus which has yet to spread widely. There was no outbreak of a virus like Covid-19 during the PDRC mass protest or the "October 14" student-led uprising. Suppose a handful of the protesters among the students are infected and have yet to show symptoms; just imagine what could happen.

Cool heads are important. One sensible approach is to demand a rewrite of the constitution to do away with the unjust and unfair content as well as a total makeover of the Senate.

This political movement is not a game for kids. It needs to be treated with care. It requires a lot of collective thinking, cool heads, and planning in a mature and non-violent manner. Last but not least, a war is not won in just one battle.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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