Students vent their fury
Experts weigh in on recent reignition of student activism across country
The dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) on Feb 21 has sparked anti-government rallies by students across the country who are frustrated that the party was treated unfairly.
The Future Forward Movement, the reincarnation of the disbanded party, has vowed to launch an off-parliament campaign as hundreds of school students have jumped on the bandwagon with a series of flash mobs.
The disgruntled students are also fed up with the long tenure of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been in power since 2014, and his regime. Given such circumstances, the students think the time is ripe for them to rally on the streets to vent their frustration.
Student activists led by the Future Forward Movement are ratcheting up pressure on Gen Prayut to step down and set up a constitution-drafting assembly to write a whole new constitution.
The current student protests are evocative of the Oct 14, 1973, popular uprising launched by university students, which culminated in the downfall of the then junta government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.
However, some political observers are worried that events may spiral out of control as they did leading up to the Oct 6, 1976, massacre of activists at Thammasat University. They have also drawn comparisons with the "Black May" incident in 1992 and the ongoing red-versus-yellow cycle of unrest over the past decade.
OCTOBER UPRISING REBORN?
In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, the rector of Walailak University and a former student leader during the Oct 14 incident, said the anti-government sentiment in the wake of the disbandment of the FFP is different from the political zeitgeist of the student movement in 1973.
Sombat: 'Zeitgeist similar to 1973 uprising'
"The public at the time had been oppressed by a military dictatorship for a decade, with a ban on political gatherings of more than five people. At the time, politics was under the absolute control of the military dictatorship which ruled with an iron fist," Mr Sombat said.
"That sentiment is different from the current political climate in which the public and media enjoy a degree of freedom of expression," he said.
Mr Sombat said that the current wave of protests has drawn much attention from the public given that such a student movement has been very rare since 1973.
He also said the protest at that time was more united. "Before the Oct 14 uprising, there were no social divisions among Thais, thus contributing to unity among student activists at the time."
He noted that the current student movement is taking shape in the context of an existing political divide which has been plaguing the country for a decade.
"As such, the student protesters may be seen to side with a certain political camp and it is hard to predict whether they will become a creative force," Mr Sombat said.
"When the Constitutional Court issues a ruling, you must respect it regardless of your disagreement. If the ruling does not satisfy you and you do not respect it, this is not a democracy within the rule of law,'' he said.
However, he also said that the government should not ban the student demonstrations as long as they remain peaceful and comply with the laws. Attempts to silence them will only fuel anger and more resistance, Mr Sombat said.
Chaturon Chaisang, a former chief strategist of the now-dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party and former Oct 14 student activist, said young people have formed the political support base of the FFP and consider it "their party".
Chaturon: 'Students considered FFP their party'
Thus the dissolution of the party is tantamount to smashing their hopes and has prompted them to respond to what they see as unfair partiality, he said.
"The current student movement has no hidden agenda or vested interests because it is spontaneous and widespread. They take to the streets because they see no future for them and for the general public as a result of the government's failure to steer the country through difficult times,'' Mr Chaturon said.
Mr Chaturon said that he expects the current student movement to sharpen its focus on the current economic and political issues and bring them to the fore to win the support of the public.
He also echoed the view that student protesters have a right to peaceful public assembly guaranteed by the constitution.
REACTION TO ARMY RULE
Deputy Thammasat University rector Prinya Thaewanarumitkul said the current student movement is a reaction to the military regime having maintained a grip on power since the 2014 coup.
Prinya: 'Rallies on campuses must not be forbidden'
"The students are different from their counterparts during the October incidents because at the time there were no elected MPs.
"Right now, the dissolution of the FFP has affected those who voted for the FFP which served as their voice and pushed their needs [in parliament]. If there had been a sound reason for disbanding the party, the protests would not have occurred,'' Mr Prinya said.
He added that the student protests draw not only the party's supporters, but also others who feel that there has been no improvement in their rights and freedom.
Mr Prinya also said that peaceful rallies in the premises of universities are legal and must not be forbidden.
Withaya Kaewparadai, a veteran Democrat politician who also joined Oct 14 protest, said that the demands by student protesters were still unclear as protesters had so far only raised what he describes as a "vague anti-dictatorship issue".
Unlike the more ruthless military dictatorships more than 40 years ago, the current government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was the former army chief, has not restricted the people's freedom like in the past, according to Mr Withaya.
"If the political problems result from the current constitution, it would be best for the students to push for charter amendments," said Mr Withaya, insisting that regardless their vague demands, students must be afforded the freedom to express themselves.
ROUGH ROAD AHEAD
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Surachart Bamrungsuk, one of the student leaders during the 1976 uprising, said he now sees a re-birth in student activism after a long time of absence.
Surachart: 'Social media helps students to coordinate'
He said the situation was similar to what happened before the 1973 uprising.
"We are seeing this because of the dissatisfaction towards the government, not the dissolution of the Future Forward Party. That was the last straw," the former committee member of the National Students Centre of Thailand in 1976 said.
Similarities include a military government that came back even after an election, and the bad economy, according to the scholar.
"The current economy is much worse," he said.
The difference, Prof Surachart said, is the communication technology and social media that enable students from many universities to share their feelings.
"Social media is an important dimension. [Students in] many universities can connect quickly and there are common feelings among the new generation," he said. "Today, rallies are even taking place at high school, no longer just university level."
However, it is too soon to predict whether street protests will follow and whether events will continue to mirror the 70s or those more recently in Hong Kong, the professor of international relations said.
Another Chulalongkorn University political scientist Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, from the Department of Government, said some people wish the students' rallies would be held in a similar manner as in 1973.
However, he does not believe it that will happen.
Chaiyan: 'Students must push for charter change'
In 1973, the people agreed they did not want the Thanom Kittikachorn government, but at present some people will come out saying those who want to oust Gen Prayut are being emotional and "chang chart" -- hate their own country.
Besides, he said Thais have learned painfully from bloody uprisings and there are laws on public gatherings that must be followed.
The situation nowadays is also different from the 70s, he claims.
"There was no constitution for a long time before the Oct 14, 1973 uprising. Now we have a constitution and an election just took place barely a year ago. Pheu Thai gained about the same MP seats as [the ruling] Palang Pracharath Party. The Future Forward Party also had six million votes. The situations are different," he said.
"We need to ask the students what their goal is. If they want PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to be out of the post, in the end nothing will satisfy them," he said adding that if the PM resigns, the National Council for Peace and Order-sponsored Senate will have the rights to vote for a new PM.
Meanwhile, if he decides to dissolve Parliament, a new election might just result in minor changes in numbers to each party's MPs.
"Unless the students know clearly what their goal is, Ajarn Chaiyan suggests they call for charter amendment, no matter they [rally because] they are unhappy with the Constitutional Court's ruling [to dissolve the FFP] or are unhappy with Gen Prayut, or they don't want the prolonged power of the military government, or such rulings of Constitutional Court. Charter amendment is the practical answer," he said.
In light of this, he said he believes there is no need for the students to rally at the moment as there is already a House committee studying amendments to the 2017 constitution. Instead, they should gather ideas and submit their proposal to the committee.
"Ajarn Piyabutr [Saengkanokkul, FFP ex-secretary-general] is a member of the committee. The students can submit their proposal and wait and see the result when the committee presents its report in April.
If they are not happy, they can rally at that time," he said.
democratic mockery: A mock democracy monument with an army tank on top is displayed during the 'IO(cha)' rally, held to protest against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the army's controversial information operations.
"Back in 1973, it was easy to see reasons to rally. But nowadays it is rather emotional and instigated via social media. They [the students] have knowledge and information, I believe, but they are emotionally instigated too much," Prof Chaiyan said.
Academic Witthayakorn Chiangkul said that the student protests are symbolic of their interest in politics in the wake of the FFP's dissolution.
However, he said that it is difficult for the rallies to transform into massive demonstrations without any support from other groups in society.