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Young Thais take to streets seeking political change

Once accused of being glued to their mobile phones, students are ready to take on the old guard

Carol Isoux, Bangkok

Carol Isoux, Bangkok

Published: March 03, 2020 06:58 AM GMT

Updated: March 03, 2020 11:29 AM GMT

Young Thais take to streets seeking political change

Students gather at a pro-democracy rally against the military government at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Feb. 26. Thai students held rare flash mob protests as anger at the dissolution of a stridently-anti military opposition party bubbled in a kingdom with a long history of street politics. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Students from universities and schools in Thailand continue to demonstrate against the dissolution of the popular Future Forward Party (FFP), which began to attract young people's imagination after the March 2019 polls.

Students have demonstrated in capital Bangkok and other cities since Feb. 21 when the Constitutional Court banned leaders of the FFP from participating in politics for the next 10 years.

The dissolved party's charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has vowed to launch a movement to bring down the government of Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader-turned-civilian prime minister.

The court found the FFP guilty of violating election rules by obtaining US$6 million from its leader Thanathorn during the March 2019 polls. The 41-year-old Thanathorn, an industrialist-turned-politician, however, claimed that the money was given as a loan.

Thailand's election commission will hear criminal charges against Thanathorn and 16 other executive leaders of FFP. If convicted, they could face a jail term of up to five years.

The move against FFP comes after it became the third-largest party in Thailand in the 2019 election, the first poll since the 2014 military coup. The FFP, contesting an election for the first time, surprisingly bagged 81 seats in the 500-member parliament.

Besides Thanathorn's charismatic leadership, FFP's call for widespread reforms such as keeping the military out of politics resonated with young Thais.

The party campaigned widely against the military's pervasive presence in the country's political life and promised a constitutional change to limit the military's influence — something never seen before in Thailand.

FFP leaders face some 30 lawsuits, including charges of treason, in events dating back to anti-coup demonstrations in 2014. They are also accused of not being loyal to the monarchy, a severe charge in Thailand.

Since the polls, the FFP has managed to cater to popular sentiments and spark large-scale street protests.
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Over the past week, numerous student rallies have been held in Bangkok and other provincial cities such as Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Khaen, Chiang Mai and Pattani. Even high school students took to the streets, something rare in Thailand where school pupils seldom express their political views.

Girl students from the Satriwithaya and Udom Triam Suksa high schools demonstrated in front of Bangkok's Democracy Monument "so that it doesn't become just a roundabout," as one student explained.

'Not the end but the beginning'

Dissolving opposition parties that don't toe the military line is not new in Thai politics.

Since the 2006 coup, the courts have been siding with right-wing establishment parties and regimes. In 2007, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai was dissolved and its executives banned. In 2008, a court banned then prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who headed a pro-Thaksin government, for hosting a cookery show, ruling that it breached the constitution.

In 2014, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai party government was also dissolved by a court decision. A coup soon followed, installing a military government.

Some approve the court's decision "to avoid falling back on the Thaksinomics system, a term used to refer to the policies of former prime minister Thaksin," explains Pimchaya Thongchaikul, a housewife.

The rather strong stance taken by Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the number two of FFP, against abuses by the monarchical system has attracted many enemies among ultra-royalists, who have accused the party of trying to destroy Thailand.

"It is not the end; it is the beginning of something even stronger," Thanathorn said after the verdict that banned his party.

He and the other leaders say they want to launch "a great social movement" to change the country and have sought support from their sympathizers.

However, the situation is fluid at the moment. Nine FFP parliamentarians have already defected and joined the Bhumjaithai Party.

In any case, it has been decades since we have seen such mobilization of Thai youth. Some would like to see in it the beginning of a student revolution, such as Thailand experienced in the 1970s. But "the idea of a youth street revolt today is very improbable," estimates the researcher Thithinan Pongsudhirak.

The youth protests are unlike those by the red shirts, who occupied the streets of Bangkok in 2010 before bloody repression. Besides clamoring for democracy, the red shirts were also protesting the harsh living conditions in the countryside.

However, protesting young students often come from privileged backgrounds, some of them having pro-military parents or grandparents, in contrast to the red shirt protesters from the villages.

"I understand their discontent," even PM Prayut said. "They are the new generation, the future of our country."

But the new generation may well surprise its elders. Prior these protests we said they were unable to move away from their mobile phones screens and demonstrate outside twitter Today, they on the street. They demand a government without being controlled by army. They are also mobilizing to protect Thanathron. His jailing could be a trigger for worsening the current conflict.

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