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Interview

Thai protest leader 'Mind' sees 'real democracy' taking two years

Patsaravalee leads first major rally since demonstration outside German embassy

Protest leader Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon at Bangkok's Pathumwan intersection in central Bangkok on Oct. 27. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's pro-democracy protesters are planning another rally for Thursday to maintain pressure on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha after besieging the German embassy earlier in the week.

"I will lead the next big rally on Thursday to challenge the government and fight for democracy," Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, a key protest leader, told Nikkei Asia on Tuesday. Another demonstration is to be staged outside The Nation media offices in Bang Na, southeast Bangkok.

Protesters planned to rally at 5 p.m. on Thursday in a financial and commercial district on Silom Road. They will continue to condemn the government for the incident at Pathumwan intersection on Oct. 16, when police used water cannons, tear gas and skin irritants on crowds of mostly high school and college students. The police subsequently rounded up more young leaders. Most have been bailed, but the three who have been most critical of the monarchy remain in custody.

The police action on Oct. 16 proved to be a game changer. Not only did it strengthen the protesters' resolve, it attracted strong international criticism for undue use of force against peaceful demonstrators, deepening the er political impasse. Protesters vowed to continue with daily rallies.

"The government has underestimated us and it has made a very big mistake in using such harsh measures against us. It has fueled anger in people's minds and urged them to fight back harder with more and more people taking to the street to protest," Patsaravalee said.

Patsaravalee leading protesters at the Samyan intersection on Oct. 26. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

From the outset of the pro-democracy movement, protesters have demanded the resignation of Prayuth and his cabinet, as well as constitutional changes drafted by representatives of the people, and reform of the monarchy.

"Since the parliament is not functioning, I and my fellow Thais will continue our fight until we get a new constitution that grants us real democracy," she said. "The process could take two years before the new charter comes into effect and by that time we expect to see the house dissolution to pave the way for the election."

Asked about what she would do during the two-year process, she said: "We will keep a very close eye on the government and if we find any cheating we will react."

Patsaravalee, a 25-year-old undergraduate, helped lead thousands of protesters on Monday in front of the German embassy and read an open letter to German Ambassador Georg Schmidt in Thai, German and English.

"We request the German government conduct an investigation and disclose King Maha Vajiralongkorn's entry and departure records, in order to determine whether His Majesty has exercised his sovereignty on German soil," she said, reciting the letter.

Schmidt promised to forward the letter to Berlin.

Patsaravalee marched to the embassy just days after her arrest on Oct. 21. "I will continue my fight with my fellow Thais," she told media when she was released the following day.

Patsaravalee's rebellious streak is fairly new. Born into a middle-class family in Saraburi Province, about 100 km north of Bangkok, her mother owned a small cosmetic kiosk in a department store, while her father ran a small construction business.

Being an only child, Patsaravalee always obeyed her parents' wishes, including pursuing an engineering degree to join her father's business.

However, the family fell on hard times after the 2014 coup, staged when Prayuth was army chief. Her mother's business dropped sharply, while her father's company went out of business.

"I think the coup ruined everything," Patsaravalee said. "After the coup, the junta leader was busy balancing a group of people in the government to maintain his power instead of taking care of economic issues. For me, the coup is the root of every problem, which has dragged the country backward."

Patsaravalee's passion for politics began in 2015 during her first year at the engineering faculty of Kasetsart University. She joined a university event marking a year since the Prayuth-led coup.

Patsaravalee was interviewed by Nikkei Asia on Oct. 27. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca)

"I saw the police dragging my friends outside violently, trying to stop us," she said. "I could not accept it and that has ignited my anger that changed my life forever."

Joining the protest movement has upended Patsaravalee's life. She apologized for arriving late for her interview, as she was juggling interviews with other international and Thai media while taking classes. She also has been organizing pro-democracy meetings for the past two months.

"Sometimes meetings last until 1 or 2 a.m., but I am not tired as this is my passion," she said.

The letter to the German ambassador was another affront to an old Thai taboo against challenging the monarchy. The letter listed specific state documents that may have been signed while the king was in Germany. It also asked whether he owes 2.7 billion euros ($3.2 billion) under German inheritance laws on the basis of the estimated 10 billion euros bequeathed by his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016.

"I don't want the monarchy to be abolished. But I want Thailand to be a democratic country with the freedom for everyone to criticize the king," she said.

Thai lawmakers failed to come up with a convincing response to pro-democracy protesters during a two-day special parliamentary session that ended on Tuesday.

"It shows that the government does not listen to us at all. They did not mention anything about the amendment of the charter, which is our key demand," she said.

Patsaravalee said she has become emboldened by the protests and vowed to continue to fight for democracy and the amendment of the charter so that all Thais live under the same constitution, including the king.

"We will continue to stage protests," she said. "It will not be daily, but it will be intensified so they will have to listen to us."

Since the march to the German embassy, which added a diplomatic twist to the youth-led protests, Patsaravalee has been bracing for another arrest. "I have no fear now," she said. "I have prepared myself to be ready to confront everything as I know who I am up against."

On Thursday, Pol. Maj. Gen. Piya Tavichai, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told Nikkei Asia that the police are investigating the march on the German embassy. He said that police could issue around 16 arrest warrants, including one for Patsaravalee, and the basis that has already been drawn up.

"The charges could range from breaking the Public Assembly Act to sedition and other crimes if [the protesters] are found to have broken any public assets," Piya said. He said the investigation "could take a few more days."

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