Protest leaders may be buoyed by the excitement of the moment, the large numbers seen at recent rallies and even the moral support they are receiving after being arrested by police but they should look keenly to what happened to the Redshirt and even Yellowshirt leaders since 2006 and, at least, beware of the legal consequences of what may follow.
Human rights activist Sunai Pasusk of Human Rights Watch in Thailand has attacked the Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, during the week for what he construed as his insincere approach to the ongoing protests. He called for an end to legal proceedings against protestors. General Prayut, while he has in recent days upheld the right to protest in Thailand, has also long warned of legal consequences for those who flout the law and on Tuesday, claimed that many students are being bullied and beguiled by their peers into protesting in the first place.
On Thursday, protest leaders arrested on Wednesday night and earlier on Thursday for criminal offences linked to ongoing anti-government protests, were charged and received bail from the Criminal Court. It comes in a week which followed the largest protest gathering seen since the 2014 coup last Sunday but which also brought a low key but stealthy response from the government.
Nine people including student protest leaders, activists and rap singers appeared in a Bangkok court on Thursday on charges ranging from sedition under Section 116 of the Thai criminal code to the use of a loudspeaker in a public place.
The former charge is a serious one, that could land those convicted under its wide terms, to imprisonment for up to seven years.
Arrests at home, on the street and on the motorway
The arrests took place at the homes of those involved, in the street and in one instance, Nattawut Sasomsapm, named on one the warrants, was accosted by no less than 10 policemen on a motorway who helped drive his car to Samran Rat police station in Bangkok’s old quarter where those arrested were held before being brought to court later on Thursday.
One of those arrested was Dechathorn Bamrungmuang or ‘Hockhacker’ from the band RAP Against Dictatorship, who was taken away on Thursday in front of his home. He told the media later that the arrest took place in front of his wife and child.
The band’s song Prathet Ku Mee (What My Country’s Got) is a staple anthem at most protest activity and was a big hit in Thailand at the end of 2018.
However, an opinion poll at the time showed that most people had not even heard of the song and a majority had no interest in listening to it. Only a slight majority, in November 2018, that did, agreed with its sentiment.
It could be a lesson for those who wish to find what is really is happening in Thailand beyond the international news agencies which have only one global narrative and who completely misread the March 2019 election as well as significant polls in other countries both before and since.
Arnon in a fiery outburst following his arrest for the second time on Wednesday night by police
Making a second appearance before the Criminal Court was key protest leader and tenacious human rights lawyer, Arnon Nampa, arrested on Wednesday night and charged for the second time. Police confidently opposed bail for Mr Arnon who was warned, on his last appearance, not to repeat the same act that led him to come before the court in the first place.
Nevertheless, they were disappointed, the court granted bail to him and the other eight accused based on letters of comfort supplied by several MPs from the Pheu Thai and Move Forward opposition parties as well as academics.
Mr Arnon, after his arrest for the second time, made a fiery speech in which he said that his computer was not a weapon and that his place of work was the court. He defined his actions as simply speaking to the public. He said he did not need to be arrested to come before the court which he is familiar with.
He beseeched court authorities to cancel the arrest warrant against him and one that allows police to search his home including his internet devices.
Police spokesman declined to comment on whether more arrests are coming down the line
There are persistent reports, supported by the latest wave of arrests, that as many as 31 people from the original protest on July 18th are the subject of arrest warrants and now also, that the organisers of August 10th rally at Thammasat University which openly called for reform of the monarchy, are to be charged.
On Tuesday, news emerged that six people involved in organising that protest are to face a Section 116 charge.
‘My six friends who organised the Thammasat Cha Mai Thon (Thammasat will no longer put up with it) will face arrest warrants for sedition. Oh, for heaven’s sake!,’ cried key student leader Parit Chiwarak well known to his friends and alike as ‘Penguin’ for his distinctive appearance and speaking pose when interviewed.
Mr Parit was arrested on Friday and brought before the court on similar charges before being released last Saturday on bail.
He attended last Sunday’s rally at Democracy Monument which saw 12,000 people take part and which represented the biggest protest in Thailand since the 2014 coup.
The ongoing arrests of protest leaders and activists appear to be progressing in a stealthy manner.
When asked by reporters, this week, if all 31 listed for arrest linked with the July 18th protest would be taken in, senior police spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, would only say: ‘I can’t answer the question now.’
Human Rights activist attacks the Prime Minister after his comments upholding the right to protest
The arrests, which began on Friday, August 7th and which progressed on Wednesday night and Thursday, has drawn a scathing response from a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
Sunai Pasusk strongly criticised Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha for being less than sincere in his recent comments about allowing the right to protest and for listening to the protestors.
‘There should be no charge and criminalisation from the beginning,’ Mr Sunai asserted. ‘This government is acting on authoritarian intent. The ongoing arrests of activists, students, and now a singer show that Prayut’s promises to listen to their voices is nothing but a lie.’
Confusing or mixed message from government leaders may be camouflaging a steely reserve based on the law
There has been a conflicting message from the Thai government over the protests during this week with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan comparing the three-finger salute to the one used by the scouts while the Education Minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, has ordered the Office of Basic Education Commission to write to schools instructing them to respect the rights of students to protest.
He attributed the initiative to the prime minister.
However, it has also been made clear that this right is required to be within the law and excludes the involvement of outside parties on school or campus grounds.
This week, the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Police Major General Somprasong Yenthuam, also described student protests as legal once they do not infringe on the rights of other students or parties. His comment came as he confirmed that police officers are monitoring all protest activity throughout the country.
Significantly, despite his bonhomie with reporters with comments about the scout’s salute this Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit, the ruling party leader, had a more serious message for students engaged in protest. He said that they should think carefully.
Prime Minister claims students are being ‘bullied’ into protesting at this time by peer pressure
In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has warned parents that they should be concerned for their children who engage in protest activity as students as it may impinge on their future careers or ability to find a job.
On Tuesday, General Prayut also warned that many students and those taking part in the protest activity in Bangkok and around the country were acting out of peer pressure. He said that they were being bullied and intimidated into taking part in the rallies.
‘I heard from some students that if they don’t participate in the events, they won’t be allowed to join groups or activities,’ the Thai Prime Minister said. ‘Some didn’t want to participate, but they were bullied.’
Last week, in a televised address to the nation, the PM called on all Thais to put differences of opinion aside and not to fall in with activity that divides Thailand between people with a different political viewpoint, economic status or age.
He urged that there be unity at this time of national and economic crisis.
Opinion polls, governments, constitutions and even coups come and go in Thailand but some legal proceedings are inexorable as Redshirts know
The protest leaders, however, are calling on this government to resign and for decisive constitutional change.
Opinion polls have shown majority public support for the protestors while on the other hand, the current government, although plagued by controversy, reports of corruption and the worst economy since 1998, has consistently managed to win by-elections throughout the kingdom.
The student protest leaders would do well to learn from the leaders of the massive Redshirt protests and even those involved in Yellowshirt activity between the 2006 coup and that of 2014 which was to herald an end to division.
Governments and coups may come and go in Thailand but the inexorable process of some criminal proceedings, initiated through the legal system against those who confront the government and go beyond the law, eventually finds its way to a day of reckoning.