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Interview

Thai protest icon is 'prepared' to cross kingdom's forbidden line

21-year-old Panusaya defies decades-long taboo as 'it is good to feel angry now'

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a Thailand university student leader, at Thammasat University in Rangsit. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

RANGSIT, Thailand -- A third-year undergraduate student strolls through the leafy campus of a prestigious Thai university with a group of friends, all of them co-eds in their early 20s. But it is far from a typical scene of student life -- they are her "security guards," each armed with mobile phones to witness, record and share online the moment agents of Thailand's pro-military government swoop to arrest her.

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul is not taking chances with her safety at Thammasat University's branch in Rangsit, a city on the northern fringe of Bangkok, where she is majoring in social research. The 21-year-old picks secure venues for meetings, preferring quieter corners. And she has just moved from living in an off-campus building -- where policemen have been spotted monitoring the movement of residents -- into a student dormitory within the university.

"I know they are going to arrest me someday, but we are prepared for that moment," said Panusaya, her voice dropping and looking reflective from behind her brown-framed, round spectacles. It was in reference to Thailand's pro-military government including her on a "watch list" of 31 political activists, a majority of them students. "These are dangerous times for us, so we meet every night, plan till late, sometimes till 3 a.m.," she said, and then pointed out three activists on the list who have already been arrested.

The tension that keeps her on edge is the price of a taboo-shattering step she took as a leader of Thammasat's student activists on the evening of Aug. 10 during an anti-government protest, led by students, on her campus. The protests have been spreading since mid-June after a lull due to the coronavirus, marking a new phase in the growing outpourings of rage by emboldened youth across universities and high schools expressing discontent against the generals ruling the country. The student demands had coalesced around three issues -- including amending the 2017 constitution drafted by allies of the generals -- until it veered towards the monarchy.

Wearing her long, brown, wavy hair loose over her rounded shoulders, Panusaya stepped out of a dramatic backdrop of a dry-ice cloud on that Monday night to read a 10-point manifesto -- even at the risk of harsh jail terms -- to reform the monarchy in this Southeast Asian kingdom. Her words stripped the decades-long taboo against openly discussing the royal family -- which even adults had not dared in the way an emotionally charged Panusaya did.

Overnight, her rebellious stance has propelled her towards becoming a poster child for Thailand's new generation of disaffected youth -- references to who she is and what she said are rippling across lips in many circles across Bangkok. Some observers are even comparing her courage to Hong Kong's Agnes Chow, just two years older than Panusaya, who emerged in the firmament of the youth-led rage championing political reform and democracy in that financial city. The Japanese media have dubbed Chow the "Goddess of Democracy."

The students' manifesto to reform the Thai monarchy singled out revoking the draconian lese-majeste laws -- which protect the leading royals from insults and threaten violators with jail terms -- slashing public spending on the royal family, and ending the favoring of royal opinion over the political views of the public, among others. "I was chosen to read it because I am the leader in Thammasat and I didn't want to put other students in trouble," said Panusaya between mobile phone calls she kept receiving last Sunday afternoon. "I decided to take the risks; I think I did the right thing."

Not surprisingly, this verbal jolt to shake up a traditional pillar revered by the ruling military-royalist elite and swathes of ultra-conservative Thais has exposed Thai youth to elderly adversaries. Panusaya got a taste of this generational divide just like her protesting peers, as ultra-royalists seethed on social media at the youth crossing a hitherto forbidden cultural terrain by questioning the role of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded the long reign of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in December 2016, but spends most of his time in Germany.

"They said I am crazy; I am out of my mind; and I should be dead," said Panusaya. "They see us as a threat for crossing forbidden lines, but the 10 points have already sparked debate between both sides. This is what my generation wants."

But reaction within the halls of power has been guarded, says a well-placed source close to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who has headed the government since May 2014, when he staged a coup to overthrow an elected government and head the junta.

"The prime minister is upset with what was said but investigations have begun to identify who is behind the students -- those supplying the money and organizational tactics," the source told Nikkei Asian Review. "This has been well organized; it is not organic. The youth are just the cover."

Ultra-royalist allies of Prayuth and the hawkish Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief, have begun circulating their own conspiracy theories, pinning the new generation of discontented youth to a decadeslong anti-monarchy plot. They have cited a "People's Revolution Chart," distributed by a network of rabid royalists, which puts academics, politicians, political activists, human rights groups, social media platforms and student organizations in the same league. The chart spans the period from the mid-1970s to the middle of this year.

But Bangkok-based diplomats dismiss the chart and the insinuation as "fantasy." They say the ultra-royalists have been shaken at the speed at which the student protests have spread across the country, and the dramatic turn to question the monarchy, even though government spooks had been tracking the youth protests for months. "The emergence of decentralized student-led groups means there are a lot of new names that hadn't crossed people's radar before," said one diplomat.

Seasoned pro-democracy campaigners, who have had stood against the military rulers since the 2014 putsch -- Thailand's 13th successful coup since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932 -- reckon the protesting students enjoy a cultural advantage as they stare down a military-backed government. "The students benefit from the moral capital that they gain from Thai society and they are seen as innocent, just the way we see elderly," said Nutta Mahattana, a leading political activist, in the wake of over 20,000 protesters attending a rally in a historic part of Bangkok on Sunday, the largest turnout since the coup. "So hurting them can destroy the legitimacy of the government -- the government must be aware of this," said Nutta.

Sirawith Seitiwat was not as fortunate, and offers a cautionary tale to Panusaya. The 28-year-old, better known by his nickname "Ja New," was attacked twice since the coup by pro-government goons for being a leader of a smaller pro-democracy group. The political science graduate from Thammasat University has partially lost his sight in his right eye after a bloody assault to his head and face in June last year by four baseball-bat-wielding men. "I was tracked by the military on campus, in the library and even at shopping malls," said Sirawith. "They still have me under surveillance and the police visit my home to 'protect me.'"

Panusaya remains undaunted. She says it is her nature to rebel against Thai systems that thrive on intimidation. "That is how I was in high school," she said of a time she challenged a teacher who beat students on their fingers as punishment. "My school friends got angry with me for speaking out."

Even at her Bangkok home, Panusaya, the youngest of three siblings, tried to stand her ground as a teenager. Her middle-class parents were beside themselves when she returned from a short student exchange program in the U.S. with her hair tinted purple and blue. "I was stubborn and liked going against my parents," she said, taking a sip of an ice coffee and breaking into a smile.

"I have become brave because of that and because of support we have on Facebook and Twitter," she added, mentioning the two widely used social media platforms that have been pivotal to mobilize the new generation of young protesters. "It is good to feel angry now ... in normal times I am a sweet girl."

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