In November 2014, a transgender student activist was arrested and briefly detained for flashing a three-fingered salute at the ‘Hunger Games 3’ movie premiere in central Bangkok as a symbolic protest against the junta. Since then, she has become one of the best-known figures in the political movement against the junta. Prachatai talked to her about why she chose to stand against the regime despite all the risks that this entailed.
After tanks and military boots were deployed on the streets of Bangkok on 22 May to stage another coup d’état, not even a decade after the 2006 coup, many anti-coup political dissidents flocked to the streets to protest against the new military regime. With the subsequent imposition of martial law, however, the voices of these political dissidents eventually died down after months of arbitrary arrests and detention.
Nonetheless, as it becomes clearer that the coup-maker’s reform policies and proposed bills on various issues, such as education, energy, natural resources, land reform, immigration, education and tax, will benefit some groups of people while negatively affecting others, a new generation of Thai students activists are choosing to make their voices heard. Despite legal harassment and other risks of retaliation by the authorities, one student activist after another has come out to take their stand against the junta. To explore the dreams and aspirations of these courageous young adults, Prachatai introduces a series of interviews on the post-coup student movement.
In the first part of this series on Thailand’s courageous youth, Prachatai interviewed Natchacha Kongudom, a transgender student from Bangkok University. After making headlines for flashing a three-fingered salute at the Hunger Games 3 movie premiere last year, she has actively participated in many other political activities against the junta. Although she was once threatened with rape by what are thought to be plainclothes military officers assigned to follow her and being often harassed by officers, Natchacha stands firm on her demands to the junta to return democracy and basic rights to people in Thailand.
Natchacha Kongudom flashing the three-fingered salute in symbolic protest against the junta at the 'Hunger Games 3' premiere at Siam Paragon Shopping Mall in central Bangkok on 20 November. She was arrested and briefly detained for the act
Most media outlets have labelled you as a student activist, but how do you perceive yourself?
Well they are not mistaken, I’d say. I’m a student and now I have been doing activities against the coup-makers along with other political activities, so If they choose to call me that I guess that it’s one way how to put it. I have been participating in activities against the coup-makers, martial law, and now Section 44 (Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which was imposed as a replacement for martial law).
Did you or the activist group that you are part of engage in any kind of political or social activities prior to the coup?
Actually, I started to engage in some sort of similar activities in high-school. I participated in activities against corruption, the Amnesty Bill (proposed by the Pheu Thai Party prior to the 2014 coup), and I even joined the 2010 red shirt protest. Just after the recent coup d’état, I and around 10 other friends lit symbolic candles against the coup on Bangkok University campus.
Do members of your activist group share a similar political mind-set?
TSCD (Thai Student Centre for Democracy) group members only associate loosely with each other. Its members are from various political backgrounds, but one thing that we all have in common is that we are against the coup d’état and all of us want to bring about a democratic regime. We might not agree about the means to achieve our shared goal for democracy, but that’s natural. In a democratic society, we have to agree and accept each other’s differences.
Most student organisations are just subsets of each other, but we share common goals. The TSCD is an umbrella student activist organisation with other organisations within, but no matter if you’re from the Liberal League of Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD), student groups from Kasetsart (Seri Kaset Student Group from Kasetsart University), or other universities, we are all helping each other because under the current situation we have to mobilise as much force as possible to wrestle with the authorities.
What are the purposes of your group’s activities and your methods?
As I have mentioned, we all share a common goal of democracy. However, we have different means of reaching our our goal. For me, I think that sometimes we need to move aggressively to state what we want, but we need to know when to tone it down and hold dialogue with the authorities. However, some of our partner groups might just want to attack the junta and don’t want to have anything to do with the authorities at all because they think that the junta is illegitimate. For me, I like to hold symbolic activities as ways to raise awareness and show that I don’t agree with the regime. Sometimes, our group organises public seminars and issues statements as well.
At first, all of us were holding activities in response against the coup d’état then we moved on to activities against the imposition of martial law and now Section 44. We just want to live under a democratic regime free from all the influences of illegitimate power where the supreme authority of the nation belongs to all the people equally. I believe in this strongly and I think that all the senators and members of the parliament should all be elected by the people and that no one should be allowed to rip up the [democratic] constitution again.
Do you think that your activities are effective in reaching these goals?
The signs of our success might be nowhere to be seen at this moment. However, we are still moving gradually and actively and in the long run [our activities] might start to show results. Some people might think that the activities are risky, but I think it’s challenging and I like it. I like to be out there and state what I think. I’m an active person and I think holding symbolic activities is a quick and effective way to respond to whatever comes up under the current regime, so whenever I can think of something [ways to hold symbolic activities] I will just do it right at that moment. These activities are up-to-date and always get quick results [in getting media attention and raising awareness]. However, these activities might of course lead to legal consequences that one might have to face later. It’s like a paradox. The more blunt and imprudent we are the more results we’ll get, but more risks as well of course.
We must admit that we still have problems regarding the mass of the movement. We might be able to receive attention from the many media outlets, but we are still not able to convince a big mass of people to be active in politics. We might be able to draw the attention of certain groups of people and raise awareness [about the current political issues under the junta], making more people dislike the regime, but trying to get them involved in [anti-junta] activities is extremely difficult. We also use social media outlets to help to promote our stand. I just talked to some elders (phu yai) I know and they asked me when Ja New (Sirawit Serithiwat, another well-known student activist of TSCD from Thammasat University) will graduate and told me that the military might treat us differently when our student status ceases. They told me that they the military tend to treat normal activists harsher than student activists, so now we can use this advantage for our activities. On this, I still have many years ahead of me doing this kind of activity.
As a transgender student activist, are you afraid being prosecuted and put in jail where you might be sexually abused for engaging in anti-junta political activities?
If you ask me if I’m afraid of this, of course I am. But, if it really happens, I think it might raise public awareness on gender issues and sexual abuse. Perhaps, it might foster new standards on these issues because nowadays it’s not only me who faces certain discrimination regarding my gender, but others as well. Therefore, if I really get arrested it might be of good use to a society in some way or another because I’m a student activist who has been active in holding political activities, not a criminal, and as a transgender, people in society might be interested in how inmates of alternative sex and gender are treated and what they have to face in prison.
People in society might even become more aware of how society and the laws of this country categorise people as only male and female and how people of alternative gender are treated or how much discomfort people like me have to face under certain circumstances.
Have you received threats and intimidations from the authorities or society because of your activities?
Yes, today, for example, when I went to the military conscription venue in Nong Khai (Nong Khai Province in northeastern Thailand) where I’m originally from, I encountered military officers from Khlong Luang (a district in Pathum Thani Province in central Thailand) who have been assigned to follow me. Normally, the military officers here would be from the military base in nearby Udon Thani Province, so it was strange that I met officers whom I’m familiar with over here. A few weeks ago, the SCB police (Special Branch Unit of the Royal Thai Police, who act as the national security intelligence division of the Royal Thai Police) also came to visit my family.
I wasn’t that afraid even when I was undergoing the physical check-up at the conscription centre or doing paperwork for the military conscription procedure. But of course, I’m concerned about my family because they seem to know nearly everything about what my family does and what do they do for living or even how many cars we have. If it’s just me I wouldn’t have to worry much, but I must also think of my family’s business and my brother’s business because if something happened to me then they might be affected as well.
What do the education institutions where you and your friends are studying think of your political activities?
I think they don’t really think much about it. It happened to some of my friends who lit candles against the coup once. Some were told that they might be suspended from the university for that, but it has never happened to me at all. I mean, I know that some of the lecturers at the university might not like my activities, but they don’t really say anything.
Do the political activities affect your studies?
Not really, my studying schedule is not so tight and I can manage my time quite well. I usually do the [political] activities after classes as well. I have to know when to do what of course and when I encounter difficulties with my studies I have friends to help me out. I’m a responsible person, so there is no problem.
Lately, military officers paid a visit to your family. What was the reaction from your parents and how did you deal with it?
Fortunately, my family are quite liberal and they respect my decisions to do things and have always given me the opportunity to say what I think since I was young. My mom used to say that she can’t control or force me and that I have freedom of thought and belief. They just want me to become a good person with positive thinking, that’s all. They know that the activities that I have been doing don’t harm anyone and are not illegal. They even think that it’s a good thing to help others and society this way, but of course they are concerned about the risks, my safety, and the legal complications that might follow.
What do you think about this generation of students and the role that they should play in society?
Nowadays, students are different from students a few decades back of course. They might not be as active or feel as strongly involved in politics. In the past, students were more active in politics because it might be something that was new to them at that time. At present, however, student organisations might have been influenced by authoritarian values from their education and educational institutions. Therefore, students after the era of the student movement in the 70s might have more tendencies towards dictatorship and authoritarianism than students in the past and some of them might think that democracy is something which is not that relevant to them. But of course, there are some active ones and there are some who are who are afraid and are waiting for the right time to come out.
After the student movement in the 1970s, many believed that the period when students were at the forefront of the democratic movement was gone, but then it resurfaced again after the recent coup. What do you think of the phenomenon?
I think it’s normal. The student movements in the 70s and now are different because the context and political circumstances are different. The nature of the authorities back then and now and the ideologies of students in those days and now are also different. However, I think the calls for freedom, democracy, and basic human rights never really die anyhow since there are basic things that people should have. The world has changed and it’s never stopped changing of course. I think people these days are not that trusting of dictatorship any longer. Although the student movement these days might not have the mass like those in the 70s because of the different political context, when issues which are more relevant to them occur, they might come out in greater mass as well.