Students need reality check

Students need reality check

On the record: Social media, not history, drives youth protests

photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya
photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

Today's students are passionate about their cause but have little knowledge of historical rallies and seem to be driven by the cyber world, Higher Education Science Research and Innovation Minister Anek Laothamatas said. In an interview with the Bangkok Post, he offered his insight into the difference between student movements of yesteryear and today's heated protests.

What do you see is going on in the youth-led movement?

It's the young people's way of saying that they have come of age and that their time has come. They are the product of the social media era, a cross between human and cyber worlds. When they emerged into the [political] scene, they gave us a reality check. They want the older generations to recognise their identity and they need space to express themselves. I'm looking at a positive side to this. There's nothing wrong with the young people protesting.

As a former president of the Chulalongkorn University's student club, is the youth-led movement of today similar or different from student forces in the past?

The Thai student movement appeared for the first time after the Manhattan Rebellion [of June 1951 when the Royal Thai Navy attempted to overthrow the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram]. The army had seized the grounds of Thammasat University, prompting a protest by some 2,000 students which was co-led by Marut Bunnag, who would later become parliament president. The students had marched to parliament and demanded the army leave the university. The demand came to fruition in October that year when the university grounds were returned through peaceful means.

Six years later the students converged en masse on the streets in protest against a rigged general election. In March 1957, students from Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities were joined by the general public in the demonstration that made its way from Sanam Luang to the Government House. FM Plaek later admitted the election was tainted and subsequently called for a re-poll, which ended the protest.

In the following year under the Sarit administration, a territorial dispute arose over the Preah Vihear ancient Hindu temple on the border with Cambodia. Chulalongkorn and Thammasat students mounted a protest march against Cambodia and asserted Thailand's claim over the temple.

In 1968, students from the two universities demonstrated against the government's drafting of a constitution which was slated to take effect over 10 years. The volatile political environment bred a new crop of student leaders, led by Pirun Chattharavanichkul, who fought against the military powers in politics in 1971. On Oct 14, 1973, a popular uprising launched by university students culminated in the downfall of the junta government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, and Oct 6, 1976 was marked by the massacre at Thammasat University.

The student protest also came to the fore in the 1991 Black May popular uprising which drove the Suchinda Kraprayoon government from power. Then the mass demonstrations sprang up in 2005 and 2006, spearheaded by the People's Alliance for Democracy against the Thaksin Shinawatra government. In 2010, the red-shirts rallied against the Abhisit Vejjajiva government and four years later, the People's Democratic Reform Committee drove a sustained campaign against the Pheu Thai regime, which was toppled by the National Council for Peace and Order.

After the Black May event, student role in mass protests diminished. The protests were led by the general public and politicians. It looked as though the students had fallen into oblivion.

It wasn't until the Free Youth movement debuted on Aug 10 that it was confirmed the students as a political force have returned from almost 30 years in hiatus.

The students of today don't know very much about the past. They have been galvanised by a rather one-sided information passed to them in the social media.

A stark difference is clearly defined between students during the time of my generation and the students of today. We were taught to break into the real world, a world we never knew had existed, such as the communities of workers and farmers. We were trained to plough rice fields and harvest paddy rice. It woke us up to the fact that classrooms as we know them form a tiny speck of reality.

In contrast, the youths of today acquire their knowledge from the cyber world. When they come across a buffalo, they might be struck by how similar the beast of burden looks in real life and on their mobile phone screen. But there are both strengths and weaknesses in everything. We need to point out to the younger people that what they view in the cyber sphere may only represent half the truth.

A researcher has claimed that some high school students joined the anti-government protests of their own free will and that they were not led by any political elements or politicians. Does that sound credible to you?

I think we need to watch and see. Don't believe everything one hears. In my time as student activist, some senior students tried to dominate us. So, it can't be denied that some people might try to pull strings.

How should the government deal with these young protesters?

On the one hand, we should commend them and give them a chance to express themselves and where possible, offer to advise them. We should talk to them. Where there is contention, the adults should explain to the young people in a dignified and respective manner. There's a lot to talk about.

How concerned are you that the protests might degenerate into violence and even bloodshed?

I'm quite concerned because the youths believe that what they think is right and proper. But they have crossed the monarchy and customs lines, which many people regard as a violation. It's a blatantly offensive act which might be met with a backlash. I've called for a non-confrontational means of resolving the problem. We should listen to each other more.

These student protesters are angry and they are self-righteous. If this keeps up, the conversation to thrash out the differences will be short-lived. If the youths want their protests to have any impact, they need to listen to others.

It's a good thing that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha remains cool, calm and collected. He has positioned himself well over the conflict. He never sees the young people as his enemies.

As the prime minister does not advocate aggression, no authorities dare to contemplate resorting to forceful means in handling the protests. We must try everything in our power to keep us from getting to that point.

We must perform a delicate balancing act to keep all sides from confrontation or the conflict from spreading nationwide. The prime minister did not exaggerate when he said some high school students were being bullied by their friends into joining the anti-government protests.

At the same time, adults should avoid getting carried away by their emotions. We shouldn't label the young people as being brainwashed. We should exercise the highest caution to prevent a clash.

I believe we still harbour the capacity to love each other and unite. We don't need to fight or treat those holding different views as our enemies.

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