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Thought police monitor Thai students' political views

If the authorities have been trying to intimidate young activists into silence, it clearly is not working

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: August 12, 2020 06:16 AM GMT
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Thought police monitor Thai students' political views

Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul reads a list of demands including the abolition of the draconian royal defamation law during a pro-democracy rally at Thammasat University on Aug 11. (Photo: AFP)

Teachers at several Thai high schools and universities have been ordered to monitor their students for their political views and activities, student activists allege.

At one high school in Nakhon Phanom province in the northeast, the school’s director instructed staff to spy on students, according to an internal memo dated Aug. 7 that was leaked to a Thai media outlet.

Teachers were told to report any sign that the school’s students might plan to stage an anti-government rally. The memo was issued a day after scores of students at the high school had staged just such a rally as part of countrywide student-led protests.

The school’s administrators refused to comment on the leaked memo, but Thai activists have condemned them for violating the rights of students to have their own political views.

Meanwhile, at another high school in Songkhla province in southern Thailand, a female teacher was filmed as she was using her mobile phone to record the faces of students who were participating in a pro-democracy rally on campus.

The teacher recorded the students with the intention of either shaming them or reporting them to the authorities, activists say. The protesting students tried to protect their identity by covering their faces with pieces of A4-size paper on which they had written slogans and demands.

Later the teacher was identified by young pro-democracy activists who decried her action as a form of intimidation aimed at silencing students with dissenting views.

In yet another instance of official harassment of protesting students, plainclothes officers reportedly detained six students, including young women, at a rally in Phitsanulok province in northern Thailand and took them to an “attitude adjustment” session in the jungle.

The students involved wrote about their experiences in a Facebook post on Aug. 10, explaining that the officials had warned them against speaking out against the monarchy for fear that the province’s guardian spirit might get upset at locals.

A local police chief, however, denied that the incident had taken place.

Several university students have told UCA News that Thai authorities have been spying on politically active students for years.

“You often see these young soldiers who pretend to be students come and sit in classes,” said one student who majors in political science and studies at a prestigious university in Bangkok.

“We instantly recognize them from their [military-style] crew cuts. They don’t speak to anyone and just sit at the back. Everyone knows who they are, but we just ignore them,” the student explained.

Yet if the authorities have been trying to intimidate politically active students into silence, it clearly has not been working. In recent weeks thousands of high school and university students have been staging flash mobs and protest rallies almost daily with calls for the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to step down.

Prayut, a former army chief, seized power in May 2014 by overthrowing an elected government in the latest of a long series of military coups that have served to stunt Thais’ democratic aspirations for decades. The coup makers and their conservative political allies went on to rewrite Thailand’s constitution to make it far less democratic by affording unelected officials handpicked by the military power over elected politicians.

Prayut’s government, which has long been mired in allegations of cronyism, incompetence and rampant corruption, has sought to stifle political dissent by criminalizing it. The police arrested several young protest leaders last week for allegedly violating an emergency decree that forbids large gatherings ostensibly to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Two prominent activists, one of whom is a human rights lawyer, have been charged with sedition and other crimes. Both have since been released on bail.

Yet young protesters have remained undeterred in the face of such intimidation. At a mass rally on Aug. 10 on the campus of a prominent university in Bangkok, several student activists openly called for a reform of the monarchy, which has long been a taboo subject in Thailand.

The slightest criticism of the royal family is punishable by 15 years in prison. Yet several young activists publicly accused King Maha Vajiralongkorn of meddling in politics and wielding unconstitutional powers at will. Vajiralongkorn, 68, ascended to the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, Bhumibol, who had reigned for seven decades.  

“Today we will speak openly about the monarchy,” Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a student leader, told several thousand protesters gathered at Thammasat University. 

“In the past, there have been statements fooling us by saying that people born into the royal family are incarnations of gods or angels,” the young woman went on, taking what appeared to be a dig at the king, who is reported to have a freewheeling lifestyle. “With all due respect, please ask yourselves: are you sure that angels or gods have this kind of personality?”

In response, staunch royalists, including the current army chief, and senior officials have been warning students against “dragging the monarchy into politics” by insisting that the institution is above politics.

“Differing opinions are normal in a democratic system. But we have to be careful not to infringe others' rights or offend the country's highest institution. Nobody will accept it,” said Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the minister of digital economy and society.

However, several observers have noted that the Thai army has itself politicized the issue by unseating two democratically elected governments in this century alone while citing the need to “protect the monarchy” as a justification. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in 2006, followed in 2014 by his sister, Yingluck, who was then prime minister.

“In 2006, Thaksin was overthrown because he posed a serious threat to the political domination of the monarchy, whose power has been sustained by the military,” Thai historian Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who lives in exile in Japan, wrote last year. “In 2014, the ousting of Yingluck had more to do with protecting and shoring up the power of the monarchy in preparation for the imminent royal succession.”

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