Student protesters must be respectful

Student protesters must be respectful

In this Aug 10 file photo, pro-democracy protesters flash a three-finger salute against dictatorship during a rally at Thammasat Rangsit campus. The conflict has deepened after some protest leaders added reform of the monarchy to their demands. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)
In this Aug 10 file photo, pro-democracy protesters flash a three-finger salute against dictatorship during a rally at Thammasat Rangsit campus. The conflict has deepened after some protest leaders added reform of the monarchy to their demands. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

The sudden announcement of a 10-point demand for reform of the monarchy at a student protest at the Rangsit campus of Thammasat University on Aug 10 was, indeed, unprecedented, daring and shocking for many Thais.

Even the core opposition Pheu Thai Party which is supportive of the student movement's protests to demand a new constitution, parliament's dissolution and a stop to government harassment against student activists hastily distanced itself from this new demand.

Public uproar quickly followed from the royalists and the public against what they deem as students crossing the line to a point which is unacceptable. Rienthong Nanna, director of Mongkutwattana hospital, who is reputed to be a hard-core royalist, reacted to the Aug 10 rally with an outburst of profanity.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was calm and merely said he felt uncomfortable with the students' transgression on the monarchy.

The police have been cautious in taking action against the protest leaders and organisers. No charges have been filed against any of them. The arrest of three protest leaders, namely Parit "Penquin" Chivarak, a Thammasat University student, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and Panupong Chadnok have nothing to do with the Thammasat protest, but are related to previous protests. They were released on bail.

Common sense, briefly though, appeared to have returned to the protest leaders when they decided to cancel the protest on Aug 12, which coincided with the birthday of the Queen Mother. Had they gone ahead with the protest, hard-core royalists might have lost their patience and decided to take the law into their hands.

The Move Forward, or Kao Klai party, the reincarnation of the dissolved Future Forward Party, is the only party that openly supports the anti-royalists' demand for reform of the monarchy. Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat says the 10-point demand did not offend the revered institution and should be discussed in a democratic society with reason and maturity.

The Progressive Movement, led by the threesome of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika "Chor" Wanich, came out later to back the students' demand after having realised the political temperature has cooled off somewhat.

Questions have been raised about the origin of the 10-point list of demands as critics doubt students were capable of crafting such a list or possessed sufficient knowledge of the history of the monarchy.

Suvinai Pornavilai, strategic chairman of the Thai Direction Institute, claimed the students got their idea from Mr Piyabutr and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a former Thammasat lecturer who is living in exile in France after escaping lese majeste charges in Thailand.

According to Dr Suvinai, Mr Piyabutr was quoted to have told a seminar held in 2012 where Mr Somsak was also present that the Thai monarchy would survive if it willingly adjusts itself to the democratic system or it will be forced to make more permanent adjustments.

The student activists have been cheered on by some 105 university lecturers and Thai exiles, among them Mr Somsak, Pavin Chatchavalpongpun, a university lecturer working in Japan, and Jom Petpradab, an independent media identity in the US besides the Progressive Movement and Kao Klai Party. All will be safe in case something happens to the protesting students.

Hardcore royalists such as vocational students, whose predecessors formed the core of the notorious Red Gaurs movement during the late 70s that was instrumental in harassing the left-leaning student movement, have been restrained in confronting the students.

The ball now appears to be in the students' court -- whether they will cross the line again by offending the monarchy or stick to their original demand for a new constitution, parliament's dissolution and ending harassment of student activists.

A mass rally was held yesterday at the Democracy Monument. All the star speakers, including Mr Parit, have vowed to attend, but whether they take to the stage or to address the monarchy issue was not known at the time this column went to press.

Meanwhile, vocational students urged the public to join them at the Democracy Monument yesterday at 11am, about four hours ahead of the students' rally.

Critical discussions on the monarchy have been a taboo in Thailand for years since the promulgation of the lese majeste law. Hence, the discussions are often done in private among trusted friends, which does not bode well for the revered institution.

I hope Thais carefully read the 10-point demand and consider whether it is worth discussing in a proper forum open to representatives of all stakeholders in a mature and reasonable manner instead of at protest sites. Or it should be dumped altogether?

Restraint from both sides over this sensitive issue, especially the hardcore elements, is a must to avoid confrontation and possible violence.

To begin with, the issue should not be raised at a protest site.

All should be reminded that, for such a sensitive issue, there will be no-winners-take-all.

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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