Fear of lese majeste law may keep discussions very one-sided
With the setting up of the Students Centre of Thailand (SCT), university students will most probably become more politically active, and perhaps even put issues about the monarchy institution up for debate.
The creation of the yellow-shirt SCT was greeted by the pro red-shirt Students Federation of Thailand (SFT) with caution, especially since both camps face manipulation by adults. After all, most members of SCT are adults and former student activists.
SCT was set up in early December with the explicit goal of protecting the institution of monarchy and democracy. However, it soon caused controversy because its name in Thai is almost identical to a now-defunct left-leaning student body, which existed back in the 1970s.
The controversy kicked off a fierce online debate between SCT founder Bovorn Yasinthorn, a leader of the multicoloured movement that became active earlier last year, and Thammasat University law lecturer Somsak Jiamteerasakul, with the former arguing that the old body wasn't just leftist, but was also royalist.
However, Somsak accused Bovorn of exploiting an old name for a different political cause.
Meanwhile, SFT spokesperson Soonyata Mianlamai said she disapproved of any attempts to mislead the public into linking the new student body with the old one, and also voiced concerns about older people dominating the new body instead of students.
Soonyata told The Nation that the yellow and red-shirt divide amongst students was normal.
"Students can have different political standings just like adults who are [divided into] red or yellow as long as they can face one another in debate," she said.
Soonyata also categorically denied allegations that older red-shirt supporters were manipulating the SFT. "We are all students with no income," she insisted, adding that she would also be interested in observing the work and public symposium organised by the SCT.
Critics, meanwhile, say that adults are running both camps and the red and yellow divide has become very visible. During the red-shirt rally last April and May, SFT set up a booth at the demonstration site to show support. Soonyata was a frequent visitor.
Similarly, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has also recruited mostly middle-class youth to form the Young PAD, which is politically active both on the streets and on the Net.
On December 19, SCT held its first public symposium to discuss what students and citizens could do to protect the monarchy and how democracy would work with His Majesty as head of state.
Bovorn, who had earlier formed an online group to protect the monarchy, said most students were too busy playing computer games and having fun, while the few engaged in serious activities face allegations of disseminating "anti-monarchist propaganda". The former student activist, who fought back in the 1970s, has accused some left-leaning academics and anti-monarchist websites of feeding students "false information".
"Many students who do not like such academics don't know what to do, but the SCT will help rectify that. Some academics are leftists who lost the battle in the 1970s and want to get even. We must change history and make it right," he said, adding that younger generations do not really know about His Majesty's contribution to society and are exposed to distorted information.
"The problem is, students have been brainwashed and have become a tool of those who failed in the past," said Bovorn, who was an avid supporter of the PAD movement but left the alliance after the group seized Bangkok's two airports in 2008.
While the issue of the monarchy and its future in Thai society will be a priority for organisations like SCT, it's unlikely that its rival, the SFT, can offer anything to publicly counter that due to Thailand's lese majeste law. Still, the issue will never go away and debates in private are likely to continue.