Charges brought against high school students 15-year-old Benamaporn ‘Ploy’ Nivas, and 17-year-old Lopnaphat ‘Min’ Wangsit highlight that this is an intergenerational struggle in Thailand between two entirely different age groups, cultures and visions for the kingdom. There were strong signals this week that the government’s patience has been tested to its limits and that the prospect for violence has grown despite the peaceful nature of the protests up to last Tuesday often highlighted by the student movement’s leaders.
Thailand saw its most dangerous protest clashes this week since the anti-government movement erupted in early July causing the Prime Minister and senior police officers to warn about a legal crackdown on those breaking the law. The week has even seen two high school students summoned by police to face charges and a call from key protest leader, Anon Nampa, for government officials to change sides and come out in support of the protest movement.
On Saturday, a colourful protest took place in Bangkok which highlights the growing divide and lack of understanding between the student and activist-led protest movement that has rocked Thailand since the beginning of July and the conservative government of Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan ocha.
Following disturbing and violent clashes on Tuesday in which 6 people were later treated for gunshot wounds and parliament was evacuated, senior police officers and the prime minister warned that charges will not be spared against any and all of those involved.
This will include legal sanctions under Thailand’s draconian Lèse majesté law penalising disrespect against the monarchy as the government heralded a new, tougher stance. The law can lead to sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment for even slight or inadvertent breaches.
Meanwhile, parliament shut down a more progressive bill and formula for constitutional reform on Wednesday evening drafted by the external iLaw group while it proceeded with diluted measures which still have some cross-party support.
It was the only parliamentary bill that had the support of the protest movement on the streets.
Protests in Bangkok by high schools students against ‘dinosaurs’ who dominate Thailand
On Saturday, in a colourful and light-hearted rally, students outside Bangkok’s exclusive and upmarket Siam Paragon shopping centre arrived with dinosaur figures representing the current conservative hierarchy in Thailand and asked members of the public to throw asteroids at the creatures.
The imaginative protest event sent a message that the age of dinosaurs was coming to an end. The rally was organised by the ‘Bad Student’ movement which is now calling for the resignation of Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan.
‘#Bye bye dinosaurs. I arrive now,’ said one message to the government. ‘Now descending on the street.’
Police charges for two High School students
The news comes as criminal charges were issued by police, this week, against two students, under 18 years of age, for their participation in a protest in mid-October at Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok in which it is understood that the high school pupils addressed the large crowd which turned up.
The two students, who received the summons to appear with their parents or guardians on November 30th at Lumpini Police Station, are 15-year old Benamaporn ‘Ploy’ Nivas, and 17-year-old Lopnaphat ‘Min’ Wangsit who are, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, among 4 juveniles who have now been charged in connection with the protests.
Protests are calling for a revolution in Thailand from its conservative tradition to progressive policies
The high school students are echoing a wider theme of the pro-democracy protest movement which is the need for a more modern and balanced society culturally, socially and economically.
Young students are calling for an end to what they see as Thailand’s deeply patriarchal society and want to see broader social issues addressed such as women and LGBT rights under the same umbrella.
The problem is that it puts them on a collision course with conservative forces in Thailand who are resolutely committed to retaining what they see as Thailand’s traditional culture which places a great emphasis on hierarchy in all things including duties to the nation and respect for those in authority which also extends to the elderly and parents.
Flaws in Thailand’s education system highlighted for a long time even by the current minister
The young students and their supporters point to a range of reports from the World Bank to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which highlight the failures in Thailand’s schools and education system.
This is something not dismissed by the current Education Minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, who himself took to the streets in protest in 2013 and 2014 in a movement which then called for a reformed democracy in Thailand.
This led to the 2014 coup and the current 2017 Constitution introduced by the National Council for Peace and Order or military junta led by the current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
This week, even after she found out that she was facing police charges, 15-year-old ‘Ploy’, a polite and well-spoken teenager was not intimidated.
‘We cannot afford to be afraid of anything, otherwise, we cannot change anything,’ she told the AFP news agency in Bangkok.
She was earlier, on November 14th, pictured as she held a framed portrait of Mr Nataphol from his days on the streets at one of the ‘Bad Student’ group’s rallies.
Not clear where the broad extent of public opinion lies in relation to these protests and their agenda
It is worth noting that apart from a number of opinion polls which show majority support for the student’s right to protest, it is not clear exactly where the broader opinion of the Thai public lies on the movement.
There is also broad support for the monarchy in Thailand which has grown in recent weeks as King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida have been seen more in public throughout the kingdom.
The monarchy, to most Thais, is a symbol of national unity and of Thailand’s unique culture and sensibility which is, by definition, conservative.
The ruling Palang Pracharat Party, in parliament, has consistently questioned public support for the protests and their agenda.
They point to several significant bye-election wins this year in support of the government and the leadership of General Prayut who, they say, was legally and democratically elected to his current position and has a valid mandate to govern particularly during this period of economic and existential crisis caused by the Covid-19 virus.
Even ministers, as well as government officials and economists, see problems with the current state of Thailand’s economy which is ‘imbalanced’
However, even the most hardened conservatives, and more and more economic analysts, are beginning to see that there is indeed a weakness in Thailand’s education system including a lack of creativity and critical thinking. This is openly admitted by government ministers and officials.
In addition, there is also a growing consensus among financial experts that whatever the government’s claims about fighting inequality and poverty, the Thai economy is imbalanced and needs government led initiatives to address this.
A report by Credit Suisse in 2018 listed Thailand as the most unequal society financially in the ten-nation ASEAN bloc and fourth in the world. Thai officials later disputed this saying the data used was out of date and inaccurate.
Thailand had a Gini coefficient of 90.2 only behind Egypt on 90.9, Kazakhstan on 95.2 and Ukraine on 95.5.
For protesters and the opposition parties in parliament, the key to addressing this is a new political system, constitution and safeguards where the military is confined to barracks and where coups are made impossible.
Pro-democracy activists want Thailand to move to a more western, European type of democracy despite the emerging problems now being seen in the West between the same forces there as are now fighting for the heart of the kingdom here.
Arch conservatives warn of ‘communistic’ teachings
On the other side, there are ultra-conservatives in Thailand such as the former army chief General Apirat Kongsompong, this week promoted by the King to a senior role in the Crown Property Bureau.
General Apirat, at the beginning of last year, castigated ‘communistic thinking’ of ‘leftists’ in universities and academia who posed a threat to Thailand’s traditional foundation centred on the monarchy.
Last October, General Apirat identified the Thai people, Thai army and the monarchy as an inseparable force as he criticised those calling for constitutional change and the ripping up of the 2017 Constitution.
Protest leader Anon Nampa calls for government officials to ‘choose’ sides and defect to the movement
The hardline comments from senior police officers and the Prime Minister, General Prayut, after Tuesday’s stormy protests has drawn an implacable and defiant response from the other side.
Anon Nampa, the human rights lawyer and key protest leader appealed openly to officials within the government to stand up to the prime minister who he accused of declaring war on the public for announcing a tough new line.
‘You need to choose, whether to live in the past or to create a new future with us,’ he told them. This is not the first such pronouncement like this from a key opposition or activist and may give some insight into what their ultimate end game is.
Progressive MP warns of drawing the monarchy in deeper by redeploying draconian Lèse majesté law
Mr Anon also, this week, called for protest volunteers who can bring with them the ability to combat tear gas being used on the demonstrations after water cannon firing water laced with tear gas chemicals were deployed on Tuesday.
His call followed the sight during fierce clashes, seen that evening, of scores of helmeted protest ‘guards’ cutting razor wire and others wearing gas masks at disturbingly violent clashes with police and counter-demonstrators.
Days earlier, the protest leader had warned protest guards that it was essential to maintain the peaceful nature and ethos of their activities on the streets to win the struggle with the government.
Meanwhile, the prominent MP for the progressive Move Forward Party, Rangsiman Rome, has warned that using the Lèse Majesté legal provision against protesters and activists risked drawing the monarchy further into the widening conflict between what he termed the people and the government.