Democracy When?

Meet the Young Activists Brave Enough to Take On Thailand's Military Junta

The Democracy Restoration Group is risking it all to fight for the right to vote.

by Caleb Quinley
03 May 2018, 10:36am

All photos by author 

It's been four years since Thailand's democracy was derailed in a military-led coup. The country, still under the rule of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a junta led by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha, has repeatedly postponed new elections and a transition back to a democracy since it seized power.

One group of young pro-democracy activists are pushing back and taking their demands to the streets, despite the risk of arrest. VICE's Caleb Quinley spoke with three key members of the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) to learn more about their motivations, the risks, and why they are willing to put their own freedoms on the line for the rest of the country.

'MY FRIENDS TELL ME: KEEP ON FIGHTING.'

It's been about five weeks since Karn Pongpraphapan scrambled up the side of a truck and raised three fingers in the air—a defiant show of solidarity with the demonstrators rallied against the military junta. The gesture, taken from the hit series Hunger Games, is now universally known in Thailand as a sign of resistance against the country's ongoing military rule.

Karn, and his fellow activists, were massed outside the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in downtown Bangkok to demand the junta honor its long-delayed promises of holding new elections. He shouted at the military men outside the compound and implored them to return the country back over to the people for a vote.

Karn Pongpraphapan addresses his fellow protesters.

I met up with Karn a few weeks later at a small restaurant across the street from one of Bangkok's main courts. He is fast becoming a recognizable face of the DRG, a mainly youth-led pro-democracy organization organizing protests and rallies in the capital. Karn, a 24-year-old university student, is part of a new generation of Thai activists. They're young, brave, and increasingly willing to stare down a regime that shows no signs of stepping down from power anytime soon.

Today's movement is in the capital, but Karn told me the first time he felt politically motivated was way out on the Thai-Myanmar border.

“When I was a volunteer in the countryside in Mae Sot near Chiang Rai, which is close to Myanmar, I saw many poor people," Karn told VICE. "Many poor children. They had to walk from one mountain to another just to get to school. When I saw this, I felt that it was so unfair.

“So, I worked as a volunteer to build schools for them. For about two years, I joined every camp possible. Then I asked myself, how can I change the social structure? But I noticed it’s like a pyramid. It’s from top-down. How can I change this if we don’t change the political system and the political structure?”


Watch: The Junta's Police State- Thailand on the Brink


Karn is an art student at Bangkok's prestigious Thammasat University—a university with a deep history of resisting authoritarian regimes. Back in 1976, thousands of university students took to the streets to protest the return of ousted anti-communist dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. Thai security forces responded by opening fire on the crowd, killing as many as 100, according to some estimates.

This kind of activism continues to saturate campus culture today, and Karn says it's a big part of why he is willing to go out on a limb as a political activist. During our conversation, Karn struck me as articulate, meticulously analytical, and naturally charismatic. In his free time, he reads philosophy and studies other influential activists from Thai history.

I asked him what moved him to become an activist, and he told me this: three years ago he was studying for an exam when he turned on the TV to find that one of his biggest influences, and the founder of DRG, Rangisiman Rome, was being arrested for conducting an anti-coup commemoration event in front of Bangkok’s Art and Cultural Center. He watched in shock as all of the activists at the event were detained and thrown in jail for the night.

Karn Pongpraphapan

“I thought, ‘Oh my god. How can they do that?’" he recalled. "They just want democracy, they just want to lead others towards freedom. They wanted to get their voice out. I thought they were so brave putting themselves at risk like that. So, I asked myself for a long time, was I ready to join?”

But Karn was faced with a dilemma. Was the movement worth the risk? He thought about this question for a while, pondering whether he was even the right kind of person for the pro-democracy movement. Eventually, he reached a conclusion: It was worth it. He began to network with other campus activists and rose to become a new voice fighting for democracy in Thailand.

“My friends would tell me to keep on fighting, keep on going," he told me. "You're a fighter. You're a leader. And when they would tell me this, it would give me energy. I then recorded a video and posted it to Facebook, and within an hour it got hundreds of shares and thousands of views."

'A SILENT MAJORITY AGREES WITH US.'

Not everyone is brave enough to voice their views in the streets right now. Thailand under military rule has become a place of arbitrary arrests, “attitude adjustment” sessions, and disappearances. People have been arrested for even the slightest sign of protest, like reading George Orwell's 1984 and eating a sandwich. It's this climate of fear that's kept protesters off the streets for this long, but Nuttaa Mahattana, another organizer with the DRG, told me she has another way to gauge the public's support of the pro-democracy movement—social media.

Social media has played a significant role in how the group keeps the pressure on the junta with its day-day activism. When DRG members aren't planning another protest, like the one planned for this Saturday, 5 May, they are online spreading their message to as many people as they can.

“I believe there is a silent majority that agree with us,” Nuttaa told me. “Because, there’s a lot of followers on Facebook and they have all been morally supportive. But when we come out on the streets, not even 10 percent of them were there. And I understand them, because everybody is afraid.”

Nuttaa Mahattana

Nuttaa, 39, works as an English teacher and a freelances as an MC and a TV host. Her friends call her "Bow," and she came across as a composed communicator with a knack for delivering her message with stunning accuracy.

"I’m not afraid," she told me. "Because there’s a few different factors in my case. First, I’m a woman. So, frankly I get more sympathy. Secondly, I did it for the right reasons, the reasons have enough weight on their own to trade with anything. Everyone only dies once. I can walk back to my car, and a drunk driver could hit me. It could happen anytime. So why fear? It’s worth the risk.”

Most of the DRG's supporters come from the Thailand's younger generation, the same people who grew up during the country's 2006 coup against ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—the brother of the Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister pushed out by this coup.

“Not everybody wants democracy, but I believe most of the new generation wants democracy," she told me. "And I think that democracy is the political system that is in line with humanity.

"If you take a child from birth, and you talk to young kids, you can see their ideologies from there, from nature, everyone wants democracy. Everyone wants to be respected, everyone wants to be heard, and everyone wants freedom of expression. It’s very natural.”


How did we end up here? Watch VICE News' on-the-ground coverage of the 2014 protests that set-off the coup and NCPO rule.


Nuttaa told me that it was the previous coup, the one in 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, that drove her to activism. It had been 15 years since the last coup shook Thailand's fragile democracy when tanks hit the streets of Bangkok again.

“It was still the time where we thought that there wouldn’t be any more coups in Thailand," she explained. "We knew it was already a modern society and we already came a long way from the previous coup, and I just couldn’t believe it happened. And it ousted the most popular government who won the elections by a landslide. It was a slap to the face of many people.”

Her work with the DRG puts a heavy emphasis on communicating and organizing. She helps plan future protests, connect with other activists, and discuss how to package their message with a wider network of pro-democracy groups. She told me that their words, and their arguments, were all they had to go against a much stronger foe.

“Their main weapons are guns," she said. "Our weapons are the principles of justice and democracy, the rule of law, and communication. So, our weapon is communicating the principle—and if we are strong enough in that—it will be our shield.”

But Nuttaa isn't just trying to restore Thailand's democracy. She wants to reform it as well. The country has been trapped in a crisis cycle of coup-election-coup for more than a decade. Thailand has torn up its constitution so many times that the entire system is need desperate need of a reboot, Nuttaa explained.

“If our movement has enough momentum, we will not only have elections, but also transparent elections,” she told me. “Which brings out the results that are in-line with what the majority of what people want. And by that, the representatives who will be put in parliament will be able to their jobs, they will be able to elect the prime minister according to the people, they will be able to fix the troublesome constitution. That would be the ground for democracy to grow.”

'SOMETIMES, I DO FEEL FEAR.'

The DRG members I spoke with tried to play-down the risks they were taking. But there are deep rifts in Thailand, ones that pose a very real threat to the DRG's nascent protest movement.

The ultra-royalist "yellow shirts," see the pro-democracy protesters as the latest in a long line of Thaksin supporting "red shirts." Thaksin and his sister Yingluck won elections by extending favorable economic schemes to Thailand's rural north, remaking it as an actual threat to urban royalists in elections.

But the Shinawatra siblings were also mired in corruption scandals through much of their time in office. Today, both of them live abroad in self-imposed exile. Yingluck herself was sentenced in absentia to five years behind bars for her role in a rice subsidy scheme that cost the country billions. But she escaped the country before the verdict, allegedly joining her brother in Dubai.

Since the military seized control of Thailand, the junta has little patience for the kinds of activist movement currently spearheaded by the DRG. Everyone I spoke to in this article risks arrest for organizing these kinds of protests.

Sirawith Seritiwat

Sirawith Seritiwat, 26, knows the risks all too well. Sirawith, widely known by his nickname "Ja-New," was kidnapped, blindfolded, beaten, and interrogated by soldiers in January of 2016 for peacefully staging anti-coup demonstrations in Bangkok. The day of his arrest, Sirawith was walking with friends near his university when an unidentified van pulled up beside him and snatched him off the street. The junta later said they arrested him for violating a ban on public assembly and political activity.

“They [junta] can do anything they want,” Sirawith told me. “After the 2014 coup, we felt that the students were the only ones who could bring about this kind of change. We don’t want the junta to determine everyone’s lives’ any longer.”

Before he became a pro-democracy activist, Sirawith was a student council member at Thammasat University. He said that he always had an interest in human rights, and felt determined to do what he could to promote freedom and democracy after the 2014 coup. Growing up poor, Sirawith began thinking about politics at a young age. He said that having a challenging background helped push him to fight for social equality.

He takes pride in the network of activist groups he helped establish, and often coordinates multiple groups spread across many numerous universities, essentially acting as an activist consultant for other organizations in the city.

“Sometimes, I do feel fear, but I control it, I balance it," he told me. "The police may have laws and power, but I have social media.”

Student activists have long been on the frontlines of protests against the military junta. And while these new demonstrations have brought national and international attention to the situation, the students themselves are risking jail time by being so visible, explained Sutharee Wannasiri, Thailand human rights specialist with the NGO Fortify Rights.

"Activists in Thailand will continue to risk imprisonment and detention because we believe that freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly are fundamental rights—not a privilege,” Sutharee told me.

But as long as the junta thinks otherwise, these activists will be living under a dark cloud of suspicion and potential arrest. With so much on the line, I had to ask them, why even do all of this? Why take the risk?

"I ask myself this question every day—Why should I do this?" Karn said. "The answer is this—I don’t do this for myself. I do it for the people. I do this for my country. I do it for democracy.”