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Student Activists are Risking Arrest to Demand an End to Thailand's Military Rule

This weekend's pro-democracy protests were some of the biggest to hit Bangkok since the military junta seized control in a coup four years ago.

by Caleb Quinley
26 March 2018, 9:00am

All photos by author

Tensions continued to rise in Thailand as hundreds of pro-democracy activists took to the streets over the weekend calling for fresh elections after four years of military rule. The protests were a sign of the growing dissatisfaction with the military rule of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)—which has made an annual habit of postponing new elections only to repeat the process again one year later.

The junta is now promising to hold elections by February 2019 after failing to follow through on this year's promise of ending military rule.

"The NCPO must go," said Karn Pongprapaphan, a 24-year-old student activist and one of the leaders of the Democracy Restoration Group—the activist group at the forefront of these latest round of protests. "They must leave from the position of authority. All Thai people want elections. It’s been four years now since we've last elected a prime minister, and that’s long enough.”

The activists were risking arrest on Saturday by massing outside the headquarters of the Thai Army. The junta outlawed political gatherings of more than five people in 2015 in a redraft of the national constitution. The law quelled dissent for a while, but today its doing little to stop an increasingly bold front of pro-democracy activists from gathering in the streets to demand change.

Karn told VICE that he was there to tell the Thai Army that it was time to stop backing the NCPO junta.

"We want to cut them off and have elections," he told VICE. "Everybody wants to vote."

Saturday's protests began at Bangkok's Thammasat University—which has established itself as ground zero for the student-led pro-democracy movement. The university has a long history of political activism, stemming from students' role in the 1973 uprising that ousted anti-communist dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. His return from exile in Singapore in 1976 brought thousands of students and activists to the campus again. Security forces responded by opening fire, killing 46 officially, although unofficial counts place that number closer to 100.

On Saturday, the demonstrators marched from Thammasat University to the headquarters of the Thai Army, a large complex some three kilometers away, where they were greeted by a squad of anti-riot police. There were minor scuffles between the two sides, by the scene remained largely peaceful as the activists dug in and began their protests in earnest.

They raised three fingers in the air, an expression adopted from the Hunger Games series that's been used as a way to protest the junta's continued power and demanded that the NCPO step down. People have been arrested for far less in Thailand since the junta took control, including quietly reading George Orwell's 1984 and, once, for eating a sandwich.

“We’re all here because we want to vote," Pan, one of the protestors, told VICE. "We should have the choice to choose our leaders. At first, we understood why the NCPO took power. But we didn’t think they would remain for this long.”

Rangsiman Rome, one of the key leaders of the Democracy Restoration Group, took the microphone on Saturday and said that the climate of arbitrary arrests, “attitude adjustment” sessions, and disappearances had to end. Rangsiman knows these issues too well. As an activist, he’s been detained before. Astonishingly, just the day before the march, he was arrested and released on two-year-old charges he violated on the NCPO’s ban on political assembly.

“If you continue to get in the way of democracy, then the military will lose more and more of its dignity,” Rangsiman yelled above the crowd. “When you take off your uniforms, you are citizens just like us."

The emboldened activists were just the latest sign that fears of detention and "re-education" were starting to wear off as the junta continues to remain entrenched in the halls of power.

"Thais refuse to live in fear and are now pushing back military repression," Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand with Human Rights Watch, told VICE. "Despite intimidation and a barrage of criminal charges, more and more have joined forces to demand the junta to honor its own promises to return power to the people through a democratic election."

And activists told VICE they are far from finished. The Democracy Restoration Group told VICE that the weekend's demonstration was just a prelude to a larger pro-democracy protest planned for this May. The group is preparing to dig in deeper this May and set up camps in an echo of the 2014 protests, and counter-protests, that ended in a coup that ousted then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and allowed the junta to seize power.

“In May, we will have more people, and we will stay here for four days, or until they give up and return democracy back to Thailand,” Karn told me as the protest ended. “We will continue to fight.”

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