Against all odds, young demonstrators persevere

Against all odds, young demonstrators persevere

A lone protester sits in front of police water cannon trucks to prevent them from advancing on demonstrators who gathered peacefully at Pathumwan intersection on Saturday. Apichit Jinakul
A lone protester sits in front of police water cannon trucks to prevent them from advancing on demonstrators who gathered peacefully at Pathumwan intersection on Saturday. Apichit Jinakul

Youthful demonstrators across Thailand loosely linked by smartphones and smart-aleck attitudes have found a way to gather, taunt and disperse with subterfuge and speed.

Airing widely shared grievances about what may be the most unequal society in the world, a small, quirky group of idealistic students, against great odds, have found a national audience.

The street rebels may attract, annoy, impress and repel in turn, but they touch on topics of heartfelt concern to most Thais, including taboo topics that many privately obsess about but rarely give public voice to.

What makes the activists stand out is a willingness to speak, a willingness to offend a vision of a new kind of Thailand.

It takes a special kind of trust between student leaders and the student-led to organise mass rallies of the kind that drew in tens of thousands of supporters just hours after the government banned free assembly and free speech and arrested the best-known speakers.

The youthful crowd knows the lay of the land intimately. What's more, they see it as theirs to occupy. They know the transportation networks inside out from long hours of shuttling between home, school and shopping districts, and they are finding ways to use this quotidian knowledge to great advantage. They are experts at hiding in plain sight, dressing for comfort, blending in with Bangkok's millions until they are ready to strike the streets. Ready to recede, too.

Clearly cognizant of past protests, they have made history come alive by choosing locations with larger resonance, whether it be Sanam Luang, where demonstrations raged decades ago during the twin Octobers of the 1970s, or camping out at monuments that point to clashes even older than that, such as Democracy Monument and Victory Monument, which commemorate the events of 1932 and 1941 respectively.

Among the protest sites they have chosen, there are nods to more recent struggles, too, such as Black May 1992 at Ratchadamnoen, and Red May 2010 at Ratchaprasong. The royally named thoroughfares reflect an elite tradition, but with just a slight shift in orthography, they have been dubbed streets of the people, or ratsadorn.

The "people" are everywhere and nowhere at once, floating like butterflies from one venue to the next. Although the number of talking points may vary from rally to rally, the twin demand of nudging both the monarchy and military out of politics is consistently voiced.

It represents a paradigm shift in the practice of Thai politics.

As the internet-savvy, phone-linked protesters sweep across town, popping up here and there, ducking low when appropriate, the map of Bangkok has become a giant whack-a-mole board.

Thongchai Winichakul, a veteran activist from the October 1976 generation, wrote a history book entitled Siam Mapped. A book about "Bangkok Re-mapped" begs to be written for the new era.

Inasmuch as it's a David vs Goliath struggle, it's hard not to wish the students well, especially when they are up against heavily armed police with nothing more than three-fingered salutes and bare hands. But the regular use of rude language and undisguised insolence has angered some elders and caused others to withhold support.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has not handled the situation well. Clumsy crackdowns at Government House and Pathumwan intersection strengthened the victim-victimiser narrative and won essential mass support for the students. A hastily announced but weakly implemented "extreme emergency decree" banning free assembly and speech, backfired badly.

Not only was it not enforced, which suggests that law enforcement is not necessarily on the same page as the premier, but it set off a big round of demonstrations.

What started as a spark at Thammasat University is now a country-wide conflagration. Not only have demos erupted across the length and width of Bangkok, but up and down the provinces as well. Small cities unaccustomed to mass protest have become mini-Bangkoks in which key public plazas are used to rail against the regime.

But even though there's something joyous in seeing peaceful demonstrations pop up in unexpected places, dangers mount.

A bloody crackdown remains a real possibility if there's no change in thinking at the top. Simply put, the students don't stand a chance in any kind of kinetic conflict. They are grievously out-gunned and have been so from day one.

Their sole pathway to success is to win so many hearts and minds that the crackdown crumbles and stalls out due to ambivalence within.

After the Oct 18 demonstrations, a policeman reportedly quit his job because he couldn't in good conscience carry out orders to combat fellow civilians. Multiply that act of social disobedience by a thousand and the chances of changing the old regime go from zero to merely incredibly daunting.

The spectre of an external crackdown has haunted the movement from the start, but there are internal dangers as well. Passion for the mission carries with it an almost obligatory willingness to sacrifice. Reckless, even suicidal actions can't be discounted when emotions run high.

But stooping to violence to fight violence is a slippery slope and should be strenuously avoided.

The protest movement in Hong Kong, which got off to a promising start, eroded its moral high ground when it condoned, even encouraged, acts of violence. Umbrellas were meant as a symbol of shelter and solidarity, not crude weapons with which to beat people.

The ends don't justify the means.

So far, the Thai student movement has done a creditable job of keeping things honest and peaceful. They deserve credit for taking on the unthinkable and doing it well.

Led by an assortment of ordinary nobodies who no one knew or paid heed to just months ago, a group of college kids thrust themselves into the national spotlight by the virtue of speaking the unspeakable and tackling taboos with humour and verve.

Heated discussions that first took place in a campus dorm in suburban Rangsit then moved onto a downtown campus which served as the springboard for the storied plazas of central Bangkok. The story of this sudden rise against the odds is a compelling narrative about the power of ideas. A loosely bound, phone-linked coalition of student idealists, human rights activists, democracy seekers and even a few bold republicans have come together to issue a clarion call for change.

"Let it end with our generation!" is the battle cry.

Older generations may be prompted to groan, sigh, cry or tear their hair out upon hearing the young ones declare that they are a generation like no other, that they will finish the unfinished business of their elders, but it's no laughing matter.

Pluck, self-confidence and a certain blindness to the cost of sacrifice are key attributes when it comes to overturning an old order. When activists feel there is nothing left to lose, doing the impossible is no more daunting than doing nothing.

True, there are egos both callow and callous at play among self-centred young rebels. And they are by and large too inexperienced to realise just how much they don't know. They are not ignorant of past tragedies, but it's book knowledge, not visceral.

Willful naivety is both a blessing and a curse, a double-edged sword. There never would have been a Tiananmen uprising had China's youth been fully mindful of the bitter lessons of the Cultural Revolution, nor, for that matter, would there have been a revolution in 1949, had earlier generations not had similar, seemingly insane moments powered by the crazy naive belief that they could change the world.

Writing at this delicate juncture, perhaps on the cusp of great change, there's no saying which way the dice will fall.

Hopefully, a historic compromise is in store, but a crackdown cannot be discounted. Even just muddling through has its consequences.

It's just a matter of time before the old order is replaced by something new, even if that which will replace it has yet to come fully into view.


Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of 'Tiananmen Moon'.

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