On July 8 this year, fourteen university students and graduates walked out of a prison in Bangkok and vowed to continue their fight against the Thai dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The “Thai 14,” as they are now known, are members of the New Democracy Movement (NDM) who were arrested and jailed for twelve days by the military court for peacefully protesting against the dictatorship. Their release marked a momentary reprieve rather than the end of their punishment. They face possible prosecution and up to six months further imprisonment for the protest, and another seven years imprisonment for the vague accusation of sedition. The military government could choose to resume the case against them at any time.
The May 22, 2014 coup by General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), was the twelfth “successful” coup since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy on June 24, 1932. In the intervening eighty-three years, which have included outright dictatorships, electoral democracies, and many gradations in-between, Thai citizens and the rulers have been locked in a struggle over sovereignty. While the country’s nineteen constitutions to date (the twentieth is currently being drafted) all assert that sovereignty belongs to the people, the long history of coups suggests otherwise; to date, no junta has been prosecuted for seizing power. Instead, each successive coup has made it easier for the next junta to rip up the existing constitution, leaving citizens struggling to wrest democracy back from the men in green.
During the years between the last coup on September 19, 2006, which ousted elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the current one, this struggle took the form of color-coded politics between the royalist-nationalist yellow shirts who favored rule by the “moral” few and the populist-democratic red shirts, including many supporters of Thaksin, who favored democratic rule. The two sides of yellow and red also map onto the long-standing divide between the relatively prosperous city and the relatively precarious countryside; wealth and access to education and employment are heavily concentrated in Thai cities despite the fact that half the population is rural.
Although the country’s human rights record deteriorated during Thaksin’s rule (2001–2006)—human rights defenders were assassinated and forcibly disappeared, and over 2,800 people were killed during the so-called “war on drugs”—he garnered a certain support among the rural population by initiating programs that improved the material conditions of their lives. Thaksin brought in universal healthcare, support for small enterprises, and community lending programs. Far more important—and more threatening to elites—Thaksin treated rural voters like real citizens, something Thai politicians had never done before.
Since 2005, when the yellow-shirt movement was formed in order to oust Thaksin, his opponents have claimed that he and all those associated with him are corrupt and that the country needs to be ruled by those who are “moral”—even if this means that such candidates are appointed by the king or a military junta rather than democratically elected by the people. While the yellow-shirt movement claims to be against Thaksin, they also seem to oppose their fellow citizens, whom they do not trust to vote in the right candidate. The struggle between the red and yellow shirts hardened and grew violent, most notably in the military crackdown by the yellow-shirt-backed government on red-shirt protesters calling for elections in April–May 2010, which resulted in ninety-four deaths and over 2,000 injuries.
This is the context in which the May 2014 coup ushered in a regime that has made the constriction of political freedom one of its signature tactics. During the first year following the coup, all protest was swiftly quashed. Arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and political prosecutions have taken place on a scale not seen since the anti-communist dictatorship that followed the October 6, 1976 massacre and coup. According to the Internet Dialogue on Legal Reform (iLaw), a Thai NGO, during the first year following the coup, at least 751 persons were detained and at least 428 arrested (nearly a quarter of which were made at peaceful protests). Sansern Sriounruen, a former Communist Party of Thailand member and red-shirt activist accused of involvement in a bomb plot, reported that he was tortured while in custody, including being beaten and electrocuted more than forty times (the police deemed his allegations “unfounded”). Military courts have been instituted for civilians for the first time since the late 1970s, and 143 individuals, in addition to the Thai 14, face prosecution for alleged crimes against the crown and the state. Sentences range from three years for anti-monarchy graffiti to fifty years in prison for critical Facebook posts. Disseminating leaflets with anti-coup messages is enough to be charged with sedition—the same charge for which the Thai 14 face possible prosecution.
Yet in defiance of the junta’s order against public demonstrations, students in Bangkok and Khon Kaen in the northeast held peaceful protests against the dictatorship on the one-year anniversary of the coup. They were arrested and then released, but summoned to report to the police in June. On June 24, 2015 fourteen of the students went to a central police station in Bangkok. But instead of reporting themselves, they went to file a complaint of police brutality during their arrests the prior month. They were denied entry to the station, and so they and several hundred other supporters held a peaceful protest outside the station. Before dispersing, they held a press conference announcing a five-point platform of democracy, human rights, justice, public participation, and nonviolence, and the NDM was born. The next day they held another protest; the day after that they were arrested and thrown in jail.
NDM represents both the most significant protest movement against the military junta to emerge and the most viable possibility to end the political deadlock that has dominated Thai society since the September 2006 coup. One reason is that NDM may be able to bridge the social, economic, and political inequality that festers in the gap between urban and rural citizens. Seven of the freed students are members of Dao Din (which means “stars on earth”), a student group that works on natural resource rights in northeastern Thailand, and seven are activists from Bangkok. Another reason is that NDM is not connected to any political party or figure and stands outside the color-coded politics of the last eight years. NDM simply calls for an end to dictatorship and for upholding the rule of law, a law that should not only apply to all but that is also just.
What is equally important is that the release of the members of NDM came after both sharp international criticism, but, more threatening to the junta, widening domestic opposition. This began when students’ professors and parents began visiting them daily and citizens organized nightly candlelight vigils outside the prison.
Thikan Srinara, a history lecturer at Srinakharinwirot University, frequently visited his former student, Chonticha Jaengrew, the only woman among the Thai 14. He wrote an article for the Thai independent media site, Prachatai, telling the story of her enrollment in his Contemporary Thai History course and how she was transformed from an ordinary university student into a dissident. Reflecting on an event prior to the coup when she first met student activists from other universities, he wrote, “She smiled and raised her hands to wai [a Thai greeting made by pressing one’s hands together] me goodbye. Then she turned back to continue chatting and laughing cheerfully with her friends. I stood and watched until they disappeared into the shadows. A waft of cool air passed, and I felt a sense of hope.”
A protest was held the night before the military court hearing regarding the renewal of the students’ detention at Thammasat University, the historic center of the student movement since 1973, when the student-led marches that then ended fifteen years of dictatorship first began. Five to six hundred people gathered to fold paper cranes, sing songs of solidarity, and share messages of support for the students. Among those present were student activists, progressive faculty members, nongovernmental and media activists, and citizens of all ages. While the military and police authorities sent plainclothes officers to observe the gathering, they did not shut it down. Even though public gatherings of five or more persons are still prohibited by junta order, the authorities decision to allow this protest reflects the growing power of the domestic opposition. The cost of permitting the protest was less than the possible increase in opposition if participants were arrested. The crowd did not disperse even after a torrential downpour sent people running for shelter to nearby buildings.
The next morning, supporters gathered outside the military court and cheered when the students’ detention was not renewed.
When the students walked out from behind bars, they did so with a promise to lead NDM forward. The specter of prosecution by the authorities continues to hang over their heads, but this seems unlikely to stop them. Asked about his experience in prison, Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, a member of Dao Din, commented, “Jail isn’t a scary place, just a boring one. Don’t be afraid of it. . . . The real scary thing is if we let the dictatorship—as well as the cultural strains that permit it to stay—to continue its tyranny in Thai society.” Many of the 281 university lecturers who signed a petition calling for the students’ release have received visits from the military authorities, yet they have launched a series of “public classrooms” to bring together students, teachers, and citizens to share ideas about rights and the law. Over a year after General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the NCPO launched a coup in the stated service of “returning happiness” to the Thai people, perhaps this—defiance in the face of repression, courage in the face of danger, and truth in the face of fear—is what the beginning of the end for a dictatorship looks like.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) and is currently writing a book about the history of impunity for state violence in Thailand from the end of the absolute monarchy until the present.