PM must embrace youthful ingenuity

PM must embrace youthful ingenuity

Although the October 6, 1976 massacre marked a bloody end to the hope of student activists in the aftermath of the popular uprising three years earlier, the spark ignited by the 1973 generation has flickered back to life this year as protests led by a new student movement have flared up across the nation.

Then, as now, the students had the vigour and idealism of youth, yet the campaign being led this year by a fearless group of core leaders including Thammasat's own Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul and Parit "Penguin'' Chiwarak, is different. This time, perhaps for the first time, those seeking a more transparent democratic process in the kingdom, among other significant reforms, also have the technological advantage.

For all the 36 billion baht submarine deals struck by the navy, neither the armed forces nor those currently nervously pacing the corridors of power can match the present protest movement's mastery of social media and communications technology.

Where the students of 1973 could only harness their intellectual acumen to put on innuendo-ridden theatrical productions and hold clandestine seminars to sow their seeds of revolution, the current crop of trailblazers have been able to reach an audience of millions, both in and outside the nation's borders.

While "Rung" and company are not the inventors of hashtag politics or Twitter activism, they are part of a generation who became social media savvy from a very early age, as they learnt from their peers, both here and abroad, how to circumvent censorship and avoid detection online.

Earlier this year, the hip-hop collective "Rap Against Dictatorship" also gave momentum to the movement with Prathet Ku Mee, a song which garnered millions of YouTube views and offered a scathing take on the state of the nation with references to current affairs set against a depiction of the events of 1976.

Ironically, the very restrictions that the authorities wish to keep intact have helped to cultivate a cohort of youthful revolutionaries whose communication skills far exceed their own in an era where activists weaponise the internet and social media to covertly and swiftly mobilise protest groups and refute state propaganda.

Authoritarianism's chief methods of subjugation and maintenance of the status quo cease to function when criticism of the regime and discussion of taboo topics is, among these young natives of online semiology, widespread and largely untraceable.

The anonymity afforded by the avatars of social media accounts and the location warping of virtual private network technology (VPNs), coupled with the use of memes, have neutered the traditional methods of propaganda, and lies and half-truths can be debunked within seconds.

In fact, the kingdom's youth have become so adept at this modus operandi that they were widely heralded as key members of a "Milk Tea Alliance" of Southeast Asian nations which earlier received global media attention for the sophistication of its memes and references during an online to-and-fro with Chinese netizens who had targeted a Thai actor and his girlfriend over comments, likes and shares perceived as contrary to the "One China" policy.

Young Thais were also quick to adopt tactics used by their contemporaries in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations, such as communicating securely using the encrypted Telegram app and using hand signals to spread warnings among large gatherings.

With growing levels of support for the protest movement, no amount of "smart" city proposals can hide the need for the behemoths of Thai society and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government to become smarter themselves. Instead of treating them as an enemy upon which to deploy the dispersal techniques of old -- chemical-laced water cannons and battalions of truncheon bearing officers -- they must harness the great potential of Thai youth to help revitalise an ailing economy brought to its knees by the first wave of global Covid-19 infections.

None of the mooted projects to modernise Thailand, whether through the creation of economic corridors, high-speed rail links or many other buzzword-laden "masterplans", will ever materialise without recognising that the young won't participate until more than just lip service is paid to their ideas and ideology. The world has changed and Thailand is lucky enough to have a generation that is ahead of the curve in many respects.

If a Thailand "4.0" that is more than the byword of a premier who likely has little grounding in the etymology of the term is to emerge from the ashes of the current downturn, it will only happen if the powers that be finally learn from the legacy of that period in national history between 1973-1976 and make a concerted effort not to allow the cycle to begin all over again in 2020.

In other words, it's time for the government to realise that the kids really are alright.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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