In the final part of this series, Prachatai talks to Atiwich Patthamapornsirikul, aka Jimmy, a student activist from the Seri Kaset Group, a student activist group from Kasetsart University. In March, the Thai junta sent security officers to visit Atiwich’s family, urging them to restrict Atiwich’s political activities. However, Atiwich chooses to continue challenging the junta to call for a return to 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 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 student 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.
Atiwich holding a microphone and read out a statement against the coup-maker to commemorate the establishment of Thammasat University on 27 June 2014
Most media outlets have labelled you as a student activist, but how do you perceive yourself?
Actually, we don’t really call ourselves activists. Me and my friends, we feel like we are doing what most people should be doing and we don’t think that by our [political] activities, we have to be activists. But, of course people like to call us activists, which is up to them. If many students come out to participate in [political] activities then we might not be referred to as activists, which I wish could happen among the educated people in the country actually, so we don’t have to be referred to as activists.
Did you or the activist group that you are part of engage in any kind of political or social activities prior to the coup?
I’ve always been interested in politics ever since I was in high school. I followed the news and everything, but it’s just that I didn’t really come out to participate in political activities, so back then I was just following the political news. However, after the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee, the anti-election protest movement) came out onto the streets, I felt that the political situation was not OK, so shortly after that I began to engage in political activities. The first time was when I and other friends in the Seri Kaset Group came and staged a symbolic event to light candles calling for an election in around February 2014. After that, I and others in the group regularly participated in pro-democratic political activities, some of which were joint events that we organised with the TSCD (Thai Student Centre for Democracy). There are quite a lot of people in the group. However, there are less than 10 active ones, who usually coordinate between our group and other student groups.
Do members of your activist group share a similar political mind-set?
Not really, everyone is liberal. We all have certain differences of course, but in principle we all believe in democracy in a liberal sense. There are no established prerogatives in our group. We might share our thoughts on some matters, but also we might have many different thoughts on certain issues as well, so nothing is really monolithic in our group and it should not be so, actually. It would be unnatural. One definite thing is that we all share our political stand for democracy.
What are the purposes of your group’s activities and your methods?
Well, as I mentioned we all share our goal in achieving democracy. However, the methods of our activities depend on the aspects of democracy that individuals in the group believe in and their personal situation, especially when it comes to the risks involved. Members of the group have to ask themselves how much risk can they take, such as can you sign an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the military if you have to. Therefore, we basically consult each other first before we engage in activities on what we should do and who would be able to do what, since some might not want to appear in the media and might not be able to accept much risk. For me, I have no problem appearing in the media, but I’m not that much of a hard-core anti-junta activist either. I have to think of the risk and balance it as well, but in most of the events organised by the TSCD, I was always doing my part as host of the event and I had no problem appearing on the stage.
Do you think that your activities are effective in reaching these goals?
Well, I think everyone should do their part in the fight for democracy. Me and my friends are just small components in this struggle, but of course each and every component matters in movements demanding democracy and we are giving it our best. The changes might not appear overnight, but with our efforts, including those of the other [activist] groups, hopefully things will gradually improve. One thing is for sure, that we never accept that the junta has had any legitimacy to rule the country since the very beginning, but they are many ways in which we choose to express our opposition to the regime.
Have you received threats and intimidation from the authorities or society because of your activities?
Yes, [in March], I was one of many [student activists] who officers paid visits to. I never really thought that they would do this because I was only the stage host at many events organised by student activist groups. There was one time when I was one of the masterminds [of an anti-coup] event which was the ‘anti-junta sandwich eating’ event (eating sandwiches against the coup-makers, a political event which was organised at Kasetsart University in Bangkok on 6 June 2014). The event was hosted by Seri Kaset at that time, so I might have been marked out under the watchful eyes of the regime since then.
When they came to visit my house, my parents and I were not home. There were only my grandparents. There were four officers who came, one of whom was a local police officer who my family knows as well. They show my picture [to my grandparents ] and asked them if they knew me and knew what I had been doing. They then told my grandparents to deter me from political activities. The tone in which they spoke was polite, but a bit threatening at the same time. However, the scary thing is that they know a lot about my personal information. They know where my family and relatives live. They also came to our house again a second time and said the same thing.
What do your parents think about your political activities?
In my family, my parents have no problems with my activities and are absolutely fine with it. My parents are very liberal and open-minded, but they can’t help worrying about my activities of course. They would tell me to be cautious and careful, but they never prevent me. They respect my decisions in things, so I never have any problems with them when it comes to my political engagement.
What do the education institutions where you and your friends are studying think of your political activities?
At first, there were a lot of friends who made bad comments about me and heavily criticised my political activities because many people in Kasetsart University are pro-junta to a certain extent. This might also be partially because many who do not like the regime stay quiet, so it seems that most of them [Kasetsart University’s students] are for the military regime. However, there are those who have changed their minds about the regime as well. At the beginning, shortly after the coup, the image of the military was better than at present, so many were cheering the regime, but now many people here who are more open-minded and consume some political news have changed their attitudes about the military as well.
As for the staff and instructors at my university, most of them know me quite well already because I have been doing a lot of activities in the university, so most of them know what my political stands are, so they don’t say much about it. I might run into some minor arguments with some of them when we talk about politics, but it is nothing serious. However, some of my [activist] friends were criticised [negatively] by some of their instructors on Facebook. In my case, there was one time after we held the event to eat sandwiches against the junta when an instructor in one of my classes commented on the activity while I was in class because there were about 300 students in the session and the instructor didn’t know that I was in there as well. But the comments were both negative and positive. And there are some instructors who are concerned about my safety and suggested that maybe I should just refrain from any political activity, but they suggest this out of concern. None of the instructors really said anything to attack my political stand.
Do the political activities affect your studies?
I can manage the time between my activities and my studies. In fact, prior to the coup, I had been doing a lot of extra-curricular activities for the university anyhow, so there is no problem juggling the two.
What do you think about this generation of students and the role that they should play in society?
Well, it’s not like they all should come out to participate actively in political activities of course. One can’t expect them to do that. However, I think at least this generation of students should be following political news in an open manner and be aware of what’s going on. They should question things, such as why some of their friends choose to participate in political activities and keep their eyes open. In this university [Kasetsart University], for example, I have a lot of friends who are not active in politics and it’s a bit disappointing that most of them never really ask as to why we choose to participate in political activities, so I wish that they could become more aware about this or at least try to ask more questions about what has happened.
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 student movements in Thailand never really died out as many might think. Many student groups have been active in many areas for a long time, but, prior to the coup, most of the issues these student activists engaged in were not about political principles, but rather problems related to social well-being. The political and social context has changed as well. These days technology has also greatly changed the behaviour of students, some of whom might become more obsessed with themselves. However, there are of course always some active student groups and the latest coup has just served as a pivotal point in which we become more united in our political goal. However, the mass of the students who are active in politics are still limited of course because I think there are some conditions that have made most Thai students less susceptible in politics. They might be more interested in themselves. Nonetheless, one of the reasons why I choose to engage in political activities is because I’m concerned about myself as well because I want to live in a society with freedom and liberty.
Now that the junta has replaced martial law with Section 44 of the Interim Charter, do you think it would be more difficult to organise political activities?
Under the military regime, it think it would be the same, no matter if it’s martial law that is enacted or Section 44 [of the Interim Charter]. They are the ones who are holding the guns after all and still constantly watching over any kind of opposition against them, so nothing has really changed.