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Why Thai students are prepared to risk everything

After years of injustice, the real causes of repression must be tackled

| Thailand
Thailand's young demonstrators use their cell phones to send a message at a rally on Sunday afternoon at Democracy Monument near the administrative heart of Thailand's capital. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Suphanut Aneknumwong are student activists; Netiwit is president of the Political Science Student Union at Chulalongkorn University.

On a sweltering afternoon on Sunday, up to 20,000 people gathered around Bangkok's Democracy Monument, the first public gathering on such scale for more than six years. Many of those present were not hard core protest veterans but high school and university students. For them, this was their first battleground.

Although we may have different demands, all of us believe firmly that there must be major political change in Thailand. That common goal gave Sunday's protest an atmosphere of hope that has been missing in our country since the military seized power in a 2014 coup.

The protest leaders were mostly young, their rhetoric filled with the internet jargon of their subculture. Toward the end, though, they reiterated clearly the three demands that have emerged from the growing youth movement for change: an end to the intimidation of pro-democracy campaigners and activists; the drafting of a new constitution; and the dissolution of parliament, including the government-appointed Senate, followed by fresh elections. They also highlighted two key principles: opposition to military coups and so-called "grand coalition" governments, which have often been used to prevent change, and the desire for a truly constitutional monarchy.

The protest, by far the biggest since the emergence of COVID-19, followed an unprecedented rally at Bangkok's Thammasat University at which students outlined a 10-point proposal to reform the monarchy -- an action that places scores at risk of arrest under the lese-majeste provision of the constitution. Together, these protests amount to the breaking of a long-held taboo in Thailand: public discussion of the role of the monarchy in politics, coupled with calls for the institution to be open to public examination.

In the past, Thailand's young people have often been labeled docile, unquestioning, and apathetic. But that has changed, and support for the reform movement is spreading to other sectors of society. Why? Perhaps because the real message is "enough is enough." Six years of the military-backed regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha have laid bare the militaristic politics brought about by the coup he led, which have allowed the elite to appoint members of the Senate, control parliament and put a prime minister in power. The system has also facilitated judicial interventions to destroy opposition political parties, such as Future Forward. We are heading into a dead end, and people know that there is no way for them but to express their dissatisfaction except by taking to the streets.

Initially, it seemed that the COVID-19 crisis would benefit the government by helping to stall rallies that took place following the dissolution of Future Forward. Instead, the draconian lockdown measures have revealed the elite's ineptitude, imposing harsh punishments on the poor and the powerless, including problems and delays in help for the needy. Suicides and mental illness cases have risen, while unemployment has soared to 4 million people. It could rise by the end of the year to 9 million, according to private think tanks.

Three-fingered salutes inspired by the film Hunger Games have been adopted as a form of silent protest against repressive government. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

Far from helping the elite, the pandemic has helped to make clear that the government under its current leadership is not competent to deal with the huge challenges facing the country. The lockdown gave young people time to converse with their parents, many of whom are experiencing economic hardship, including large numbers who worked in the tourism industry and have lost their jobs. Many students have experienced a huge economic downturn. We can no longer enjoy the kind of lifestyle we had before, and many of the 500,000 who will graduate later this year feel hopeless in the face of collapsing job prospects.

Against this background, social media has become a vital platform for the transmission of news and information, helping to educate young people on myriad issues ranging from gender inequality to poverty, and creating a generation that perceives the grave injustices brought about by Thailand's distorted social structure. Social media has also helped protest organizers -- including an abundance of flash mobs that took place before Aug. 16 -- while broader movements against injustice such as Black Lives Matter and the MilkTeaAlliance, a homegrown Thai movement protesting the influence of China on popular culture, have contributed to a shift in public opinion against acceptance of dictatorships and structural inequalities.

In this turbulent time, courage is needed. Politicians, the media, and celebrities must stand with the Thai people and democracy, utilizing their influence. Protests must be bigger and held in more regions. We also need to create international pressure on the government while learning tactics and strategies from successful protest movements around the world and spreading the values and ideals of democracy throughout Thailand.

This will not be a short journey; those in power will not let the status quo be shaken if they can help it. But we demand that the state must not use violence, and must stop threatening activists and citizens. Our campaign is for basic human rights and democracy, encompassed in our three demands, two key principles, and aspirations for a true constitutional monarchy.

We believe that the Thai people will not surrender and that the protests and campaigning will continue until our democratic ideals are fully satisfied by the implementation of widespread reform. There is a well-known slogan among young people, and we stand by it: Let it end with our generation!

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