Shortly after the one-year anniversary of the military coup on 22 May, 14 anti-junta activists were arrested for their peaceful gatherings. Since then, different groups in Thai society have shown their support for or opposition to the jailed activists’ civil disobedience.The 14 activists, mostly students, are members of the New Democracy Movement (NDM).
Seven of the group are anti-coup activists based in Bangkok who participated in the coup anniversary in central Bangkok on 22 May 2015 while the rest are student activists from the student-led human rights and environmental group called Dao Din based in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, who held a similar event on the same date. On 26 June, the police issued arrest warrants for 14 of the activists on charges of violating the junta’s orders.
After their arrest, groups such as Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) criticized the police for hastily arresting student activists, breaching protocol and intimidating their lawyer. Similarly, the Network of Academics concerned about Arrested Students, a group of almost 300 notable academics from local and foreign universities including Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Chiang Mai, Burapha, Mae Fah Luang, Silpakorn, Ramkhamhaeng, Columbia, and Sydney, have denounced the arrests as an “enforcement of barbaric laws” by a “tyrant.”
On the other hand, a recently-created pro-junta student group, the Vocational Student Group for the Nation has emerged to publicly berate the anti-junta activists’ actions, claiming that the activists are backed by individuals with a “hidden agenda.”
In light of the arrests—as well as the wildly fluctuating public opinions on it—Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, a political science lecturer at Thammasat, talks to Prachatai on the importance of inclusivity and momentum in civil disobedience.
For a civil disobedience movement like the NDM to succeed, says Janjira, its rhetoric must be disseminated in such a way to create momentum that unifies the polarized, disparate Thai society. The anti-junta movement will need to organize their tactics in order to unify Thais to political action, says the lecturer.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, lecturer at the Political Science Faculty of Thammasat University, who has been active in giving moral support to the 14 anti-junta activists under custody
As a professor specializing in civil disobedience, how do you view the New Democracy Movement?
The protests over the recent past have all drawn large crowds because they were all undeniably ‘political.’ Red shirts would flock to red-shirt protests, yellow shirts to yellow-shirt ones, etc. For a civil disobedience movement to succeed, however, the base of its supporters must include people from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The movement must unite people by upholding international democratic values, which transcend traditional political divisions.
A lot of Thais don’t currently see the importance of democracy in everyday life. Much of the middle class are still hesitant and deliberately stay unattached to political movements, or fluctuate between them. These hesitant people need a trigger to spark them to civil obedience.
At the moment, it’s still debatable whether the arrest of the 14 activists is a trigger event for those who are still hesitant. An example of a trigger event is the Tunisian market vendor’s self-immolation that triggered the Arab Spring. If the arrest of the 14 proves to be as stimulating, then the Thai middle class just needs to focus on a common goal to achieve their political hopes.
The Thai middle class holds great political power, much more than they realize. They’ve brought governments crashing down, and the current junta would be unable to survive without their support. Even now there are a lot of anti-establishment middle class Thais who only need that trigger event, that political motivation, to leap into action.
How do you propose the New Democracy Movement “extend the base of its supporters”?
The NDM needs to be able to include the public in its acts of civil disobedience. Inclusivity is a crucial part of gaining any type of supporters. We can see how the junta’s strong self-marketing of propaganda through its official media channels has produced pro-junta sentiment.
We can look at Serbia to see a great example of successful marketing of a civil disobedience movement. The original base of support for the Serbian civil disobedience movement was concentrated in the middle class. To extend their support base to rural dwellers, they used folksy language to spread their rhetoric. Thus, the movement became a full-fledged citizen movement. The supporters were united by political goals, even if they did not agree on all ideological points.
Similarly, the NDM need to market themselves in a way that ‘breaks the wheel’ of red-yellow, right-left cycle of protests. When people see the same old faces protesting the same old cause, or the same old pictures of people in coloured shirts being yanked around, they’ll ignore political movements altogether. New faces and new images, such as young students prostrating for mercy at the feet of police, need to circulate so that the hesitant people will be sparked into action.
One of the new faces supporting the NDM is Roundfinger. He could prove to be a very effective loudspeaker for the movement. Initially, the Dao Din movement seems quite folksy and grassroots-y to a Bangkokian. Support of popular figures like Roundfinger widens the scope of supporters.
The NDM also needs to utilize different forms of power. Power isn’t just wielded by a leader in a uniform. Standing under the banner of lawfulness, possessing manpower, or even having a common mascot are also forms of power. If the NDM utilizes collective leadership, then the movement could gain the momentum of bravery and there’s no telling what they can accomplish with that. They could go beyond getting an election, and redesign the political structure altogether.
The NDM is also being discredited by opposition groups with rhetoric we’ve heard before, such as being hired to protest or being secret red shirts. How do you propose the NDM deals with such rhetoric?
The junta and many of their supporters produce such rhetoric by cashing in on their usual stash of red-shirt hate. They connect the NDM to the red shirts, and then take advantage of city people’s already skewed view of the red shirts. City people don’t see the “red-shirt side” of the story, so to speak, unlike rural dwellers who have benefited from it. Because of the red-shirt positions, rural people’s human dignity is upheld, such as when they can get medical care from a hospital instead of being turned away. City people don’t recognize this benefit, since they can afford medical care anyway.
It’s pointless for the NDM to deny accusations of being paid or of being controlled by Thaksin. As we’ve seen in the past, denials only lead to more vitriolic accusations. I propose that the NDM react using humour so that they redefine the accusations. They have to make the public see that the accusations are ridiculous to the point of unbelievability.
To reference Serbia again, the civil disobedience activists there were accused of being terrorists. To counter these rumours, they conducted their activities by dressing up in animal costumes. They picked away at the accusation until it was funny, with a sort of surreal humour that we see in Monty Python or The Office.
Through humour tactics, political discourse will change from focusing on winning-losing to convincing people—a task that’s much more difficult.
Still, current Thai society’s different factions make it seem so irreconcilable. What can be done to make it more inclusive?
Creating an inclusive system of government will be a challenge. Yellow and red shirts seem to speak in different languages to each other, the former crusading against corruption, the second against wage disparity.
The military also needs to be seen as a political force, not an external, all-powerful force bearing down upon political actions. When the junta uses martial law and seizure of funds as a weapon, this needs to be understood as a political action, not a military one.
Democracy does not need to get rid of the army, but there must be civilian control over the military—and not the other way around. That’s what the student activists are trying to outline by refusing bail. The junta has no authority to force them to go anywhere. Henry David Thoreau did the same. An inclusive Thai society isn’t a pipe dream. Take a look at ancient Ayutthaya. That cosmopolitan society would include literally anyone who was beneficial to the community.
Any other idiosyncrasies about current Thai society?
As cosmopolitan as Thai society seems to be today, the regressive backlashes that occasionally flash up are regrettable, such as the recent call for everyone to wear traditional Thai clothes on Saturday.
I have found that there are two types of Thais who study abroad and return. There are those who assimilate at least some foreign culture, and find that the current Thai establishment does not meet international values of governance. The second are those who interact only with Thais during their time abroad, do not apply their foreign education to Thailand, and continue to support the establishment. This second group is often part of the hesitant people, and prove a formidable roadblock to an inclusive Thai society.