Activists set sail on rising tide of discontent

Activists set sail on rising tide of discontent

Rights group paints regime as force that has 'mismanaged the country'

Anusorn Unno, a core leader of the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights, is seen on a trip to the South. (FB/anusorn.unno)
Anusorn Unno, a core leader of the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights, is seen on a trip to the South. (FB/anusorn.unno)

After more than three years at the helm, the junta government has mismanaged the country and abused its authority in many areas, and this has acted as a catalyst for the people to come together and voice their disgruntlement, says Anusorn Unno, a core leader of the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights (TANCR).

Mr Anusorn, also dean of Thammasat University's Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, told the Bangkok Post the tipping point has been reached and people have now started to act collectively to express their displeasure with the government.

His network mounted a campaign called the "We Walk" march which landed eight core members with charges of illegally assembling in a group of five or people for political purposes. They have denied these charges.

The eight charged belong to the People Go Network of activists and academics which organised the anti-junta march that runs until Feb 17. The mobile rally kicked off on Jan 20 with 150 people taking part.

The 450km march from the capital to the northeastern province of Khon Kaen has drawn participants from civil rights groups concerned over issues ranging from healthcare, alternative farming and natural resources to freedom of expression.

Mr Anusorn said that over the past few weeks in particular, events have occurred which exposed irregularities in the governance of the powers that be. However, no one has been held to account.

"People thought they had to do something," he said.

At the same time, instances of abuse of power have been on the increase, and activities organised by the civic groups have been banned, added Mr Anusorn.

The sweeping ban on political activity was particularly detrimental to civic networks, putting a brake on the ongoing, transparent campaigns for civil rights they have been conducting over the past 20-30 years.

Also, the persistently reneged upon promises to hold an election have disenchanted not just members of civic groups but the general public as a whole.

Mr Anusorn said if these problems, which have taken their toll on the government and the National Council for Peace and Order, are not taken care of, it could be the beginning of a not-so-happy ending for the junta.

The dean said the TANCR is a loosely-tied coalition of academics concerned about people's rights and liberties which has come under threat from the NCPO.

The network was formed after university students held anti-junta public activities in May 2015 to mark the first anniversary of the military coup. Some of them faced prosecution for defying the NCPO's assembly ban.

As more and more people fell foul of this NCPO order, academics and their allies banded together as a network to seek bail and demand their immediate and unconditional release.

The group has also organised academic forums on subjects including the economy, justice and the coup itself. It moved ahead with a campaign to reject the referendum on the present constitution on Aug 7, 2016. The group felt the government was disseminating one-sided information about the charter to people.

Civil organisations, meanwhile, sponsored offensives to educate the public about the rights and freedoms of the 'little people'. These organisations soon consolidated into the People Go Network, consisting of more than 100 affiliated groups.

"Issues affecting the little people are not given enough prevalence in the public domain or are being twisted," he said.

Those in power tend to maintain a rather narrow mindset, which is what made it imperative for the people to march from Bangkok to the provinces and let their voices be heard, according to the Mr Anusorn.

He said even some supporters of the regime believe that people in the administration are using their absolute power to serve financiers. The TANCR decided that it was important to hammer home the message that major issues, from citizens' ability to put food on the table to environmental problems and political woes, are all intertwined.

Issues in the network's sights at present relate to the universal health insurance policy, community rights, natural resources and environment preservation, food and farm security, and democracy.

"This is a message to the government that enough is enough. Civil movements must rise up and right these wrongs," he said.

Mr Anusorn noted that some members of the network, mostly in the provinces, were summonsed to attend 'attitude adjustment' sessions with the military after expressing views deemed provocative and a security risk by the authorities.

Consequently, some members may now have decided to tone down their activism. "But it doesn't mean they are submissive or afraid," he said.

The legal measures, such as the ban on political gatherings, which are in place are restrictive, he noted.

The network leaders initially did not contemplate becoming spearheads of the movement.

"We thought that the time was ripe to take action now that the constitution guarantees people's freedom and their right to gather to express opinions which contradicts the current ban on public assemblies," Mr Anusorn said.

Late last month, the network received a significant boost after the Administrative Court granted an injunction prohibiting police from forcibly stopping the 'We Walk' march.

On Jan 20, the marchers left the gate of Thammasat University's Rangsit campus in groups of three or four to avoid violating the regime's prohibition against the political assembly of five or more people.

Mr Anusorn dismissed the accusation that the network's activities may trigger unrest which the NCPO could use as a pretext to delay the next election yet again.

"They [the NCPO] can say what they want, because they have the power, the tanks and the special laws," he said.

Civic groups argue it is normal in any democracy for people to speak about problems collectively, and this should not be misconstrued as causing unrest.

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