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Thai students lead protests calling for political change

Wave of flash mobs triggered by court verdict to disband opposition party Future Forward.

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Updated: February 28, 2020

Making the three-finger salute, a gesture from blockbuster The Hunger Games, to signify defiance against a dictatorial regime and singing Do You Hear The People Sing? from the musical Les Miserables, a few hundred students at a prestigious high school known for academic excellence yesterday morning joined a wave of antigovernment protests across Thailand.

For Triam Udom Suksa School, located in the heart of Bangkok, an organised protest led by the students themselves was a rare sight.

“I have heard objections to why kids like us need to come out and protest. I want to ask them why they think kids cannot express our political opinions,” 17-year-old Napat Sengrod told the crowd.

An unprecedented wave of “flash mobs” at various universities and high schools was triggered this week over last Friday’s court verdict to disband Future Forward, the country’s second-biggest opposition party, over party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s loans worth 191 million baht (S$8.4 million) to his party.

Starting with Thammasat University in Pathum Thani province, which organised a candlelight vigil last Friday night, it spread to more than two dozen other universities in several parts of Thailand and at least two high schools in Bangkok.

Representing a new force in Thai politics, Future Forward quickly gained popularity among the younger generation after it was formed in 2018, scooping up 81 seats in the March general election last year for its anti-junta stance and promotion of transparency and progressive issues.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned students yesterday against protesting, saying they “may not have a future” if they are put in prison. “I’m not angry at these kids at all. I’m just concerned,” he said.

In response, the Student Union of Thailand said in a statement that “instead of threatening students, Mr Prayut should just focus on the censure debate”.

He is one of six politicians in the ruling coalition being grilled in Parliament in Thailand’s first no-confidence motion in seven years. The vote will be held today at 9.30am local time (10.30am Singapore time).

The “flash mobs” – protests of small to medium sizes announced only a day ahead that quickly disperse – are a new trend that stand in sharp contrast to the massive sit-in demonstrations that dragged on for weeks by both supporters and opponents of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra from the mid-2000s to 2014.

Using social media to their advantage, each campus and school organised their own protests with separate hashtags like Thammasat University’s “Those dissolving Future Forward are my uni alumni” and Satriwithaya School’s “Senate that sides with democracy”, referring to the 250 senators handpicked by the military regime in power from the 2014 coup until the first half of last year. Mr Prayut was the junta leader who led the 2014 coup.

During Triam Udom’s half-hour “flash mob”, students – in school uniforms and concealing their faces with surgical and anti-pollution masks – held up signs saying, “Triam Udom does not kowtow to dictatorship” and “The grades we just received are less important than democracy”, amid a heavy police presence.

In one of the biggest gatherings, more than 2,000 students and non-students gathered at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus in Pathum Thani province late on Wednesday to express their frustration at a verdict they deemed unfair and a double standard when politicians on the government side have not faced such a crushing fate.

But the protests are no longer confined to only the dissolution of Future Forward, which protesters have called “the last straw”. They are evolving into a movement calling for change.

“We’re here to fight for our future. If we don’t make them stop taking advantage of us, then they will do it forever,” said 19-year-old Sarawut Chang-um.

Turning on their smartphones’ flashlights in unison as a gesture of protest, the crowd chanted “Dictators, get out. Long live democracy.”

“Future Forward was an agent for change and reform for a better Thailand. But it’s more than just the party,” said Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.

“These young Thais grew up over the last 15 years seeing their country stuck… They see no good future for Thailand under the current regime, which has been in power for nearly six years. They don’t want to be stuck with a disguised military regime in the 2020s.”

Provided the movement does not fizzle out, Dr Thitinan said: “This situation is fast becoming combustible to the point that Prayut’s time in office may become untenable.”

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About the Author: The Straits Times is Singapore's top-selling newspaper.

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