In the second of the series, Prachatai talks to Sirawit Serithiwat (Ja New), a student activist from Thammasat University. In early February 2015, Sirawit was one of the four activists charged with violating the junta’s Order 7/2014, which prohibits a political public gathering of more than five persons. If found guilty, Sirawit could face up to a year in jail and a 20,000 baht fine. He is also reportedly being constantly followed by security officers. Despite the legal harassment and intimidation by the Thai authorities, Sirawit chooses to continue his political activities for democracy.
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 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 a 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.
Sirawit Serithiwat, aka. Ja New, a fourth year student activist from Thammasat University (file photo)
Continue from Part I
Most media outlets have labelled you as a student activist, but how do you perceive yourself?
Well, I guess that’s the term for it. I think there are many dimensions to student activism. Some student groups choose to engage in cultural activities and others in social, political or perhaps development fields. There are various aspects to it and our group chooses to harness our energy in the political dimension of student activism.
Did you or the activist group that you are part of engage in any kind of political or social activities prior to the coup?
Yes, even before the coup, we always engaged in some activities. At first, we campaigned against the SOTUS system in universities (the hierarchical seniority system in many Thai universities). The TSCD (Thai Student Centre for Democracy) that I’m doing most activities with was established just after the coup. Before that we held activities related to education to raise awareness about problems in Thai education and to call for education reform as well. We even went to the Education Ministry, but there was no answer from them. After the coup, however, we shifted our aim to focus on the coup. When the Amnesty Bill was proposed (a bill under the Pheu Thai Party, the previous elected administration), we even held an activity with the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) against the bill in front of the Pheu Thai Party office. We put up the names of the dead (victims of the political violence in April-May 2010) and splashed paint at the venue where our activity took place. There were many areas of activities that our group and other groups focus on, but the coup was the event that united us. It united us with common goals.
Do members of your activist group share a similar political mind-set?
One similar thing that we all share is that we are students who choose to come out and engage in political activities on our own initiative not under the auspices of or with affiliations to [political] organisations. We choose to engage in political and social activities out of our beliefs and ideologies or the dreams and understanding of what a good society ought to be and what rights people should have. All of us share this. Besides, we all have to study and juggle our studies with our activities. However, there are also differences of course. There are many shades of thought on different issues that we don’t have in common. The coup certainly united us and gave us common goals to fight for, but when it comes to our thoughts and ideologies, there are many shades to these. Not all of us are attracted to the same version of liberalism. Some are more tilted towards socialism and some are more into neo-liberalism. However, since there was an attempt to destroy democracy after the PDRC protest (the anti-election People’s Democratic Reform Committee) and the coup that followed, we have directed our energy into the same direction.
What are the purposes of your group’s activities and your methods?
The main goal is to fight for basic rights, especially political rights, in order to allow people to have political space. When this political space is accessible to people then they can express themselves and say things that they want to say to the authorities. This would then eventually lead to democracy. As for the methods to fight for these goals, normally me and my activist group like to hold symbolic activities which will be based on certain social or political issues that we want to communicate to the public.
Do you think that your activities are effective in reaching these goals?
Well, one can’t really expect our activities to work and change things magically overnight. I think the most important things are to raise public awareness about what the junta did and what has happened to this country and to convince people to question the regime. This sounds like a modest aim, but once people start to question things it could bring about changes gradually.
Have you received threats and intimidation from the authorities or society because of your activities?
Recently on 19 March, some officers came to my dormitory and attempted to search my room. However, the security guards didn’t let them in because the officers didn’t have a search warrant with them. Although they were in uniform, the security guards were adamant about not letting them in without a warrant. Nonetheless, the biggest nuisance for me is how I’m being followed and monitored by army officers on a regular basis. I even had to rush coming to meet you for an interview today just to make sure that no one would be able to track me in time. Once, I was at Hua Lampong train station (Bangkok’s central train station) on my way to Ubon Ratchathani and a police officer from the Thai Special Branch Police (a police unit responsible for national security intelligence) called me. The officer then asked if I was about to take a journey somewhere and I wondered how did he know that I was about to take a train. Then I heard the sound of a train horn from the other end of the phone line, so I asked the officer if he was also at the train station. He swiftly said good bye and hung up the phone. I was sure that he had been following me to the station. Sometimes, I encounter some strange officers as well. Some of the them would call me and told me that they had been following me then they would ask me if I could just go back home when I stayed out late at the university, telling me that they were tired and that they wanted to go back home. They would even beg me. I think they [officers] probably didn’t want to follow me, but they simply could not refuse their orders. It’s rather ironic really.
The other day after they attempted to search my room, I went to meet with the EU (European Union) officials. After that they [Thai officers] apologised to me and said that they didn’t really intend to search my room, but just wanted to meet me and invite me to have coffee with them. Their gestures changed dramatically after my meeting with the EU. I think if you make it clear that you are not afraid, they [the authorities] might think twice about the measures they take against you. Some of my activist friends who show that they are afraid constantly face intimidation from the authorities, so I think sometimes we just have to show that we do not fear them. When the authorities don’t play by the rules we have to find a way to out-power them. I even became close to some of the officers and just let them follow me. I’m not a terrorist, so I have nothing to hide.
What do the education institutions where you and your friends are studying think of your political activities?
Some of them might be following our activities, but when I meet up with other friends who are not very into student activism, then I don’t really talk about my political and social activities much. Some of them would be confused when they heard news about my activities and would be surprised and wonder what I did to appear in the news. However, as for friends who are not interested in politics or student activism, I just don’t talk much about politics or try to involve them in it and we are just normal friends as other friends are to each other. As for my university and my lecturers, I think I’m lucky because I’m studying at Thammasat University and I’m studying at the Political Science Faculty as well, so I bet you can guess what most lecturers in my faculty are like. They already have quite a reputation in this [political engagement]. Some of my student activist friends from other universities might face problems with their universities because of their political activities. As for me, however, some of my lecturers used to engage in political movements and other activism themselves when they were my age, so they even told me about their experiences and gave me recommendations on things.
They are some friends who, prior to the coup, held the opposite political opinions from me as well. But after the coup, they talked to me more often and began to distance themselves from the junta. They would say that they didn’t agree with the coup-makers. Although to me they were the ones who created the pretext for the coup-makers, they would eventually understand me and my ideas better and denounced what the coup-makers did later on.
Do the political activities affect your studies?
Not really, at one point, when it’s time to study then we all have to of course. During the examination period especially, we can’t afford to be that engaged in activism and people would notice that we become quieter at that time. From around May to June, which is the midterm examination period, people will wonder why we cease all activities and ask what happened to the student activist groups. It’s all about finding a good balance of course. Our families still expect the best of our academic performance, but at the same time we also want to pursue our dreams, ideologies, and aspirations for society, so we all have to juggle. We are trying our best in this.
What do you think about this generation of students and the role that they should play in society?
That’s a difficult question. Well, I don’t place much expectation on them because each of them has the right to think of what they like to do and measure the risks that might come from being involved in political activities. Some elders, especially those who lived through the student movements in the 70s, might ask why the students these days are not as politically active as those in the past. I think it is just that the context of time is different. Those who are the political oppressors can’t be as clearly identified as the military dictatorship under Thanom Kittikachorn’s regime in the 70s (a dictator known for his extreme anti-communist measures, who ruled from 1963-1973). The military these days have their own mass to support the regime as well, so it is rather difficult. Most students these days don’t really share or have political ideologies and most are preoccupied with their studies. Also, the military regime these days is not as repressive in comparison to those of the past, so many people just overlook it. As long as the regime does not really interfere with individual rights of most people, the majority I think don’t really care who has power or how much power the authorities have. However, whenever the authorities mess with the rights to privacy then people might be more inclined to come out and rebel against the regime. For me, as I’m a political activist, I felt the repression of the regime first hand unlike others. But in the long run, other people might begin to feel the impacts of the regime as well.
I think a lot of people have overly romanticised the student movements in the 70s and I think in a certain sense it might have been similar to [the situation of student activists] now. People are different. We can’t simply force people and demand that they have to fight for democracy. Some might already be content with their lives and preoccupied with other tasks. We all have equal rights to decide what to do.
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?
As I mentioned, the context of time is just different between the present and the era of student movements in the 70s. I think the student movements never really died down completely. Many student activist groups have been engaging in many kinds of activities prior to the coup, but it is just that when the coup d’état happened it was a major blow that united many students who share a passion for politics and democracy. As for those who are asking why aren’t there more students coming out against the junta, I would say that actually they have to act as well not just pondering about this. They shouldn’t just leave the movement for democracy only to the students as if they are waiting for some sort of hero.