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Interview

Thailand's protest leader vows to amend constitution despite arrest

Free People head vows bigger demonstration in October if demands unmet

Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree speaks to Nikkei Asian Review in Bangkok on Sept. 3. (Photo by Photo by Lauren DeCicca)

BANGKOK -- When Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree was released from the Criminal Court in Bangkok on the evening of Aug. 26, he immediately violated the terms of his bail. Surrounded by his supporters, he vowed to stage another protest against the Prayuth government.

The 23-year-old had been detained at noon that day at his residence in Nonthaburi Province on the outskirts of Bangkok on charges of violating the emergency law and sedition after organizing the thousands-strong "Free Youth" protest on July 18. He was taken to a police station alongside Panumas Singprom, another Free Youth organizer. After a five-hour interrogation, the two were released on bail.

Eight days after his arrest, the first time he had been in custody, Tattep remained undaunted. "We are preparing a bigger protest, which is expected to be held in October because the government is unlikely to meet our demands by the end of September," he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview on Thursday.

He said the protest could take several forms, ranging from a massive march to small, coordinated protests across the country, to besieging government headquarters.

"We have not concluded how to conduct the protests, but it will be escalated," he said. The October protest "would create greater pressure on the government to react to our requests."

Dressed in a black T-shirt, similar to the one he wore the day he was arrested, he said the next protests would draw 100,000 people. A recent graduate of Chulalongkorn University, widely seen as the most prestigious university in the kingdom, Tattep is a key leader of the youth-led, anti-government movement Free People.

Initially called Free Youth, early demonstrations were mainly made up of students. The movement changed its moniker to Free People as people from other walks of life joined the movement. The last Free People protest, on Aug. 16, which drew more than 20,000 people, was the largest political gathering Thailand has seen since the military staged a coup in 2014.

Tattep and his allies, who remain mostly students from major universities across the country, form the core of Free People. In the Aug. 16 protest, Tattep and supporters of Free People presented their demands: dissolution of both chambers of parliament, a rewriting of contentious parts of the constitution and an end to official harassment prevents people from exercising their fundamental rights.

In response to the protests, the government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, has added Tattep to a watchlist of 31 political activists, alongside Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 21-year-old student at Thammasat University. On Aug. 10, during an anti-government protest on the Thammasat campus, she risked prison to read a 10-point manifesto calling for reform the Thai monarchy, defying a decades-old taboo against openly discussing the royal family.

Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, a leader of the Free People movement, holds up a three-fingered salute, a symbol of resistance, at a safe house in Bangkok on Sept. 3. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca)

Tattep said Free People is an inclusive movement comprising various groups from every corner of the Thai society. Their common goal is to amend the constitution, he said. "However, each group is operated by different leaders, who have their own strategies."

"It's like we are the cars, moving toward the same destination of real democracy. However, each car is driven by different organizers, who have different ideas," he said, "That is why you saw Thammasat protesters appeal [for] monarchy reform, while we are still focused on constitutional amendment."

Tattep, who is also secretary-general of the Free Youth and Free People groups, said he still believes revising the charter is the key to all other reforms. "For me, you can reform anything you want if you have a fair constitution that is drafted by the people and allows people to reform everything, including the monarchy."

As of Thursday, police have issued arrest warrants for 31 protesters, including Tattep, who are on the watchlist. Some of them have been arrested three times.

Tattep insisted he must continue his fight because he wants to put an end to the inequality and injustice prevalent in Thai society. The only way to slash all problems is to create a "fair rule," or an amendment of the national charter to allow everybody to play in a "fair game," he said.

"We can't separate economic problems from political problems because they are the same thing," Tattep said. "If we have good politics that creates good state welfare for all Thais, we would finally get a good economy, too," he said, lamenting the inequality he experienced as a child.

Tattep grew up in the old-town, ethnic Chinese district of Bangrak in the center of Bangkok. He was the only child of a middle-class family. His mother played a major role in household finances, running a textile shop. When his mother died six years ago, his father was forced to find work as a driver to support the family and put Tattep through university.

Tattep at a safe house in Bangkok  (Photo by Lauren DeCicca)

"That was when I found inequality and insufficient public welfare that affected my family," he said. His mother's death marked the end of the textile business, as his father has no idea about design and fashion trends. As a truck driver, Tattep's father earned less than 15,000 baht ($479) a month, roughly the minimum wage for university graduates.

"That raised doubts in my head," Tattep said. "People should not face any difficulty in earning a living [and] getting a good education if the government provides good social welfare."

Tattep, who first studied science and hoped to become a pharmacist, switched his major to political science because he wanted to reshape Thai society into one that he sees as free and fair.

His passion for politics and social justice intensified in 2016, when he saw first hand injustice and intimidation on a global scale in his home country. Tattep and a friend had organized a seminar on politics at Chulalongkorn University. One of the keynote speakers was Joshua Wong, a leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that called for universal suffrage in the territory.

He went to meet Wong at the airport, but Wong was barred from entering Thailand by immigration authorities and immediately sent home with no clear reason given.

"By that time, I just realized that there is an injustice that keeps pressing on us and we need to fight against it, and that's why I wanted to work in the political firmament because I want to make a change," he said.

In 2018, Tattep joined the Future Forward Party, founded the same year by 41-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

After graduating from Chulalongkorn in February, Tattep began organizing anti-government protests. "I had strong support from my father. He always allows me to do whatever I want to do," Tattep said.

In the March 2019 general election, the pro-democracy party received 6.3 million votes, or 17.8% of the ballots cast, with strong support from first-time voters under 25. Future Forward won 81 out of 500 lower house seats only to be disbanded in February this year after a court ruling that it had taken illegal funding. But this did not quell Tattep's political activism.

On Jan. 12, he organized an early-morning race called "Run Against Dictatorship" in a Bangkok park, protesting against Prayuth and demanding more political freedom.

After a hiatus due to the coronavirus lockdown, Tattep and Parit Chiwarak, another protest leader, held another anti-government protest in Bangkok on June 24 to commemorate the "Siamese Revolution in 1932" that ousted King Rama VII resulted in the drafting of the country's first constitution.

On July 18, Tattep staged a big protest that led to his first arrest. "I am prepared for the second and third arrests. I am well prepared because I will not stop fighting," he said.

He vows to keep the protests peaceful, saying, "We have made it clear that we don't want any coup."

But should the government crackdown harder on the demonstrations planned for October, Tattep and his allies could face soldiers and tanks. "I and my supporters will confront them peacefully and I think they would not dare to shoot at us," Tattep said.

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