Thai students take part in a Milk Tea Alliance anti-China protest outside the Chinese embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 1. (Photo: AFP)
Thailand’s young pro-democracy activists rarely miss a chance to stick it to the country’s conservative rulers and they did not miss their chance when several were summoned to a police station in Bangkok to hear new charges against them.
In a public show of defiance to Thailand’s military-allied government on Oct. 1, the seven activists produced cigarette lighters and burned the summons warrants issued against them outside the police station.
“This is unfair,” prominent student activist Parit Chiwarak said about the criminal proceedings against them.
“It goes against the law [but the police] are just following their master’s orders,” he added, referring to a view held by protesters that police are doing the bidding of autocratic Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014 and has been in charge ever since despite widespread displeasure with his ability to govern the country.
The seven protest leaders had been summoned to the police station over charges related to their roles in anti-government mass rallies that have been taking place regularly around Bangkok and elsewhere since early July.
Before they turned themselves in, the young activists addressed a group of reporters, speaking of what they described as judicial harassment while flashing the three-fingered salute of their movement, borrowed from the Hunger Games movies, which portray a group of indomitable young rebels standing up to an oppressive dictatorship.
Parit also decried a diktat by authorities that require pro-democracy protesters to seek prior approval for their rallies, which he says violates their right to the freedom of assembly.
Yet despite the best efforts of the government to throw the book at young protesters, they remain defiant.
Parit and dozens of other activists are facing a variety of criminal charges, including sedition, because of their roles in mass rallies, mostly attended by young Thais, aimed at forcing Prayut’s government to resign. Protesters have also been calling for sweeping political reforms in a country where people’s democratic aspirations have long been stifled by recurrent army coups.
Pro-democratic sentiments are gaining momentum across the country partly because of widespread economic malaise in Thailand brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and mismanagement of the once robust economy by Prayut’s administration.
Millions of Thais have been plunged into dire poverty with no prospects of earning a living in the foreseeable future as Thailand’s key sectors of tourism, services and manufacturing have all taken a hit. The Bank of Thailand estimates that the economy will shrink by nearly 9 percent by the end of the year over last year’s rate.
Meanwhile, even as numerous pro-democracy leaders are facing charges, including over their alleged violation of an emergency decree that forbids large gatherings as an anti-pandemic measure, the leaders of smaller pro-government protests have been left unmolested by the authorities.
This points to a clear case of double standards, according to pro-democracy activists, who accuse the police and courts of lacking any independence from political interference.
“They are prejudiced toward the pro-democracy group. [Members of the pro-government group] have never been charged,” Parit pointed out to reporters.
The spirited pro-democracy rallies organized by high school and university students in Bangkok and cities around Thailand have been capturing headlines worldwide in recent months. The demonstrations have also highlighted a generational divide in Thailand where the majority of young people appear to have embraced a progressive political agenda even in the face of staunch opposition from their parents.
“My parents disagree with me about my views. My mother is especially against my participation in demonstrations,” a university student of Chinese ancestry who is a practicing Catholic told UCA News.
“It’s not that they like the [current] government, but they learned to keep quiet. When they were my age, they didn’t protest even though they lived under another oppressive military regime,” said the student, who asked to be identified only as Ploy, her nickname.
It remains to be seen, however, how much longer youth-led rallies can carry on as the authorities seem bent on crushing Thailand’s growing pro-democracy movement through judicial means by charging its prominent members with various crimes that could land them in prison for years.
“We’re facing an uphill battle, but we have to keep on trying,” Ploy said. “Thailand cannot stay a repressive society forever.”