Crackdown on student protest is a wasted effort

Crackdown on student protest is a wasted effort

Tension is rising as the anti-government protest scheduled for Saturday draws nearer.

The protest date -- Sept 19 -- is a date loaded with history, as the day marks the 14th anniversary of the coup led by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, which toppled the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

The planned venue -- Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus -- is also rich in history and political overtones. The campus, along with the adjacent Sanam Luang, witnessed the start of the October 14 uprising and the October 6 massacre of left-leaning students.

Recently, the university's administrators issued a statement barring students from holding a rally at the campus. They said the students' request to use the campus' grounds did not meet the university's criteria.

However, student activist Panasaya Sitthijirawattanakul urged the university to reconsider, saying protesters would be more at risk if they are forced to take to the streets. She also insisted the protesters should have the right to rally at the university, which is well-known as a champion of liberty.

"If they lock the gates, we will break the chain," she said.

Ms Panasaya also said they will not refrain from discussing the highly-sensitive topic of reforms to the monarchy during the rally.

The students' defiance has raised concerns on whether the students are pushing the envelope too far. It must be remembered that over-zealousness could put the movement at risk of a backlash, even violence, as a few groups have come out to condemn the Sept 19 demonstration.

This is the dilemma faced by the students.

While the rallies have been credited for highlighting the issue of freedom of speech when the monarchy is concerned, there is always the question of how will it go before the protest itself overshadows the push for other demands, such as a constitutional amendments and an end to government's harassment of activists.

Considering how sensitive monarchy reform is as a subject, the risk of going over the line is also high.

Obviously, not every member of the progressive movement shares the same stance on the issue. Some want to see more reforms, while others would like to see less -- ultimately this isn't a topic that could unite and galvanise anti-government protesters.

The movement, however, has the advantage of not having to rush into anything.

Led by youths -- many of whom are still in high school -- the protesters definitely have time on their side, in addition to creativity, connectivity and technological prowess. They have shown an ability to choose words and symbols effectively to protest against everything that is wrong with a society in which certain things can't be spelt out publicly.

Right now, the government is weakened by Covid-19. The economy is in tatters, and there isn't even a finance minister yet. Discontent with the Prayut administration will only grow as the downturn deepens.

Under the circumstances, public support for anti-government protesters will naturally grow -- all they need to do is maintain the momentum.

Ultimately, the government's own inefficiency, its perceived failure to manage the economy and inability reform the broken justice system which will eventually lead to its downfall.

For now, the government's strategy is to arrest and slap heavy charges against the movement's leaders. But the effort could be futile, just like the government's attempt to force Facebook to close down the controversial "Royalist Marketplace" group.

Not only did the group spring back to life and amass the same number of followers within a few days, but the government has also drawn attention to a group that would otherwise have been considered "underground" and possibly brought itself a court case with Facebook.

Similarly, the government's slapping of student activists and protest leaders with such serious charges such as sedition, when they were only exercising their right to assemble peacefully, will be seen as furthering perceived ills in the justice system.

The disproportionate charges could prompt people to think the government is indeed harassing activists, provoking those who have remained silent throughout to support the protest.

Besides, does the government and/or the high institution have a back-up plan if the rallies grow out of hand? They could stage another coup -- but that would be an extremely risky option.

The last coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has been in power for more than six years and his popularity is decidedly waning.

The current protests are shaping up to be a generational conflict, which may, unfortunately, take a generation or two to resolve.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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