Crackdown on youth protesters will backfire

Crackdown on youth protesters will backfire

Remember how just two decades ago, Thailand was regarded as a progressive democracy among Asian nations? The recent arrests of a civil rights lawyer and a student activist, which appear to be the prelude to a widespread crackdown on youth movements, made me lose hope over the state of democracy in the country.

Lawyer Arnon Nampa and activist Panupong Chadnok were arrested on Friday for their role in the July 18 rally by student activists pressing for a constitutional amendment, House dissolution and an end to the harassment of pro-democracy activists.

The pair faces charges of sedition, violating the emergency decree, as well as other offences which include blocking public paths and using loudspeakers without permission. On Saturday, they were released after posting 100,000 baht bail each.

News reports said police are targeting 29 more activists with links to the youth protest, although their identities have yet to be revealed. One could be Parit Cheewarak, a student activist at Thammasat University, who said he was served with an arrest warrant after the protest.

Mr Panupong, a Rayong resident, had spoken on stage at several youth rallies, while Mr Arnon, on the other hand, caused a stir with his speech at a demonstration at Democracy Monument last week, which called for a reform of the monarchy.

In his speech, the lawyer urged the government to amend laws concerning royal power, abolish the lese majeste law to bring Thailand in line with democratic and human rights principles, and listen to the students' voices -- thus becoming the first person to criticise the monarch in public. That said, the police insisted his arrest had nothing to do with his speech.

Jailing him and Mr Panupong over sedition charges without giving them the chance to defend themselves, as if they carried out a serious crime, is simply not acceptable. Why? Because voicing our opinions in public should not be a crime.

Pictures posted by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre, which showed police dragging the pair as they were brought to the police station and the court, have angered netizens. Some posted a picture of senior police officers kowtowing to a rich tycoon who was recently sentenced for wildlife poaching. What a contrast!

The government has insisted it values the youth perspective in national development. But in reality, youths with critical minds are often faced with trouble, as authorities do whatever they can to silence those who are brave enough to rally out of love for their country. In fact, an ultra-right wing movement has even threatened to make the youths "futureless". Isn't that sad?

From the 1990s until mid-2000s, Thailand was a regional leader in democracy and economy.

The 1997 constitution was touted as the "people's charter" because of public participation in the drafting process. It guaranteed freedom and placed an emphasis on checks and balances in the parliamentary system. Under it, politicians and voters worked together to strengthen welfare systems by improving access to free basic education and universal healthcare coverage.

But look at Thailand now. Its economy has stagnated since before the pandemic as a result of political instability and coups. The military-sponsored constitution contains dubious clauses which compromise checks and balances, while the election system sanctioned by the charter is unfair as it leaves a chance for those in government to destroy their political enemies.

Many young graduates are stripped of job opportunities because of the deep-rooted inequalities which favour the rich. The struggling media have lost their role as a watchdog, while self-interest -- not public interest -- is the main driver behind those in the government.

Those youths who rallied on the streets are in trouble, as the authorities want them to be imbeciles who just follow orders. But they are pushing for a better society, so they should be allowed to be critical and challenge the system to ensure democratic principles are respected. They deserve better.

The threats against young activists are too much to take, and I believe I'm not alone.

After Mr Arnon and Mr Panupong were taken to Bang Khen police station on Friday, about 200 people rallied outside the station. On Saturday afternoon, about a thousand people gathered at the Siam Discovery skywalk, vowing to continue the rallies. The hashtag "If you don't fight, stay slaves" topped Twitter's trending topics over the weekend.

Obviously, they are angry.

Crackdown on youth movements, whatever the reasons behind it, is a huge mistake.

I believe the wrong strategy would instead strengthen the movement, as we have seen in the past.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.


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