Night began to fall as hundreds of students crowded inside an open courtyard at Bangkok’s prestigious Mahidol University, a campus located on the outskirts of the capital, on Tuesday, February 25. Armed with posters emblazoned with pro-democracy messages, the young men and women amassed for only one reason — revolution.
The sound of chants filled the halls as the air turned dense with rebellion. “Out with the dictatorship!” is heard reverberating on the campus. In an act of peaceful defiance against the current establishment, hundreds of students raised three fingers in the air. This physical symbol, adopted from the dystopian The Hunger Games trilogy, has become an expression of solidarity and resistance in Thailand.
Thousands of university students are now mobilising across the country in a way the nation has not seen in decades. All for the profound desire for democracy. It’s cut from the same cloth as the protests that rocked Hong Kong last year, which similarly has young people as its leaders.
“The reason why it took this long to protest across this country is because we have been living in fear,” said Francis Bunkueanun Paothong, 20, one of the organisers of the protest at Mahidol University.
“There are injustices everywhere in Thailand, and I think this fear is the reason why we haven’t been able to mobilise this much. However, we are not living in fear anymore. Because the government cannot — and will not — defeat us,” he told VICE.
Protesting in Thailand is like playing with fire.
Large protests have ended in tragedy on more than one occasion. The 1976 Thammasat Massacre, a student led-rally, is still viewed today as the darkest day in the country’s history. Authorities cracked down on thousands of student protestors who were rallying against a potential return to military rule. Over fears of growing communism and political instability, the state opened fire on students at Thammasat University. Official records put the number of deaths at 46, but the real number is probably in the hundreds.
In May 1992, in an event now known as ‘Black May,’ 200,000 protestors, including thousands of students, took to the streets to mobilise against another military general who rose to power by force. The rallies ended in 52 deaths, along with hundreds of disappearances.
In 2010, another series of protests against the establishment ended in a military crackdown, leaving 92 people killed. This week’s sweeping protests are a response to last Friday’s court verdict to dissolve the second largest opposition party, Future Forward (FFP), over a loan of close to $9 million that the group’s leader, Thanathorn Juangroonggruangkit, gave the party in order to finance their election campaign last year. The constitutional court claims the loan was illegal because it was over the 10 million baht ($316,756) limit, even though other parties have done the exact same thing. Young Thais hoped the FFP could finally bring liberty back to the people.
Thailand has a long and complicated history of political instability.
The country has failed to maintain democracy even though millions of its citizens want it badly. Elected governments, often voted in by the lower-middle class, wind up ending in military coups supported by elites and royalists under the guise of “protecting the monarchy.” This sometimes leads citizens to rise up and protest for fresh elections.
There have been 13 successful and nine unsuccessful coups in the last century. The last coup was in 2014; the military government behind the coup has evolved to appear democratic, but has maintained power since. It’s important to note that today’s protesters are less concerned with old political conflicts, and are simply looking for a change and a progressive new system.
The FFP’s progressive ideals and charismatic young leader Thanathorn resonated with the youth in a unique way. And once Thailand’s constitutional court decided to evaporate the FFP into smoke, millions were immediately angered.
So far, there is no one leader, or clear group of leaders spearheading the youth movement, but many are looking to prominent pro-democracy activists to help make sense of what’s happening behind the scenes, and potentially be there when the time comes for further leadership.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 23, one of the nation’s most respected and recognisable faces when it comes to student-led pro-democracy movements, told VICE that the protests have been a long time coming.
“University students have hated the government for many years now,” he said, with a quiet confidence.
“The protests are happening independently for now. Some students started posting on Twitter and created these pages about their universities that don't support the government.”
To make their voices heard, students started writing slogans and posting them online, creating a friendly competition of who can make the best one.
“When one university started it, others responded by doing the same,” Netiwit said.
He said these informal protests will likely turn into a coordinated movement, with university students coming together, in the near future. However, they will need more time to make it a success.
“It can’t be now,” he said. “Young people have to know that the government has very strong instruments. Most of the young students don’t know what they should do. They are not certain enough yet now. But I understand, because when you are facing the military, how can you respond?”
Rushing into it, he said, would risk the lives of the people involved and the success of the entire movement.
“If the leader doesn’t know how to organise, if you don’t do it (protest) right, you can fail terribly. So it’s good to have many creative approaches. If they make some progress first, and apply some pressure on the government, then maybe the next step could be to come together. But they have to be strategic,” he said.
Many believe that Netiwit is exactly the leader who can get the job done.
"He's like gasoline, essential to ignite the movement and keep it going," said Game, a recent graduate from Mahidol University.
But Netiwit said that right now, he would rather focus on training protesters about their rights.
For James Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong, and researcher on Thai politics and youth culture, it’s not necessarily a leader the Thai pro-democracy movement needs, but momentum.
He explained that last year’s Hong Kong protests were actually an extension of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and benefited from nonstop rallies. Not only are Thai students less experienced when it comes to aggressive protests, Buchanan said they are probably not as angry as most protesters in Hong Kong.
If this week’s protests are not sustained, Thai leaders can simply wait it out until they run out of steam, target a few organisers to punish, and end the movement.
“The movement in Hong Kong has shown a remarkable stamina and determination to keep going. It remains to be seen how long the Thai students can keep it up,” Buchanan said. “If they plan to do so, they will need to innovate beyond the short campus rallies we’ve seen this week.”
But young Thais say they should not be underestimated.
At another rally across the city two days after the Mahidol demonstration, hundreds of students from Ramkamhaeng University came together in another huge show of defiance. One of the more spirited activists at the protest, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, said that they have every intention to keep up the momentum.
“This week is the week of anger. Students from many universities have sprung up. But I think in another week, we’ll become even more organised and united. We’ll [develop] unified demands against the government,” he said.
“We have realised that having an absolute dictatorial leader in office causes us to be more afraid than the fear of protesting.”