Protest fails to win over silent majority

Protest fails to win over silent majority

Protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul flashes a three-finger salute against dictatorship during the Sept 19 rally at Sanam Luang. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
Protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul flashes a three-finger salute against dictatorship during the Sept 19 rally at Sanam Luang. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

The student-led protest at Sanam Luang on Sept 19-20 was anything but a success. There has been no positive response regarding their demands: changes of the constitution, an end to harassment against student activists and reform of the monarchy.

The protesters are still miles away from winning a concession from government MPs and senators to amend the constitution, let alone write a new one.

The sudden twist in parliament on Friday when government MPs joined senators to stall the vote on six proposed charter amendments and instead chose to set up a bi-partisan committee to study the proposed amendments for a month -- a delay tactic -- is a clear indication these legislators are not treating the protesters as seriously as they were before the rally.

Why? First of all, the number of protesters was not as big as was predicted.

One student leader, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, claimed the protesters were about 200,000 strong, a figure which appeared to be inflated, while Reuters reported about 30,000 and the police put the number at closer to 20,000. All the figures are, at best, just an approximation.

More important than the numbers game is the fact most of the protesters were not students, but red-shirt followers -- many of whom were said to have been mobilised by a political party.

So, what happened to the students and why was the turnout not as big as previously anticipated despite healthy signs of a blossoming democratic movement and the rise of a student rebellion against the old establishment in schools across the country?

The only achievement of the Sept 19-20 protest was the mock installation of the protesters' democracy plaque in the grounds of Sanam Luang, supposedly to carry on the cause of the Khana Ratsadorn that staged the bloodless coup to transform Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The plaque was, however, removed the next day by the police to be used as evidence against protest leaders. Some state agencies filed complaints with police accusing the activists of damaging a registered historical site.

Why Sanam Luang for the mock installation of the democracy plaque? The inconvenient truth is that the Royal Plaza, which was the original destination of the protesters for the installation ritual was blocked by high cement barriers, barbed wire and police. So, the protest leaders opted for Plan B to stay put at Sanam Luang.

The protest ended abruptly and unceremoniously after Ms Panusaya handed a letter containing their demands on reform of the monarchy to Pol Lt-Gen Pakkapong Pongpetra, commissioner of the metropolitan bureau, a compromise to their original demand that a privy councillor accept the document at the Privy Council's office.

Having assessed the protesters' situation, the Senate and government parties changed tack and resorted to a delaying tactic to stall the vote on constitutional amendments at the joint meeting of the Senate and House on Friday.

Protesters reacted angrily to being "double crossed" by temporarily laying siege to parliament and pouring obscenities on government MPs and senators when they left, and on social media too.

House Speaker Chuan Leekpai who has nothing to do with the way the legislators voted because of his role to remain impartial was, unfortunately, caught in the cross-hairs of Ms Panusaya's outburst. She resorted to a vulgar Thai word referring to the male genital.

Her vulgarity is unacceptable towards a decent and respectable man like Mr Chuan.

The use of foul language by some protest leaders against the monarchy and against those who disagree with them is a big problem and explains why the silent majority have stayed away, not joined their cause.

The question is why can't the issue be discussed in a constructive manner, without foul language and hatred?

More importantly, this vulgarity and hate against their perceived opponents have won the protesters more foes than friends.

That the protest leaders have broken the wall of silence on such a sensitive issue is significant, and I admire their courage. But since this is a big issue, it must be approached cautiously and realistically, with the full realisation that they can't get what all they want in just one battle.

Changes are inevitable, but some will take time. And one change out of 10 is already a big step forward.

The protest leaders must change too if they are to win support from the silent majority. They must be more patient, smarter, more open-minded to differing views and less aggressive in their approach.

They should also be reminded that while their cheerleaders remain safe from legal consequences, they aren't and may have to bear the full weight of the law.

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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