To commemorate the first year of the the New Democracy Movement, the up and coming anti-junta youth activists, Prachatai reviewed the development and achievements of the movement during the past year. Talking to the prominent members of the group on the future direction of the movement, a co-leader claims that they are currently the national opposer of the junta.
On 22 May 2015, groups of students and activists in Bangkok peacefully gathered at multiple events to commemorate the coup d’etat one year earlier. At the events, the authorities cracked down by arresting more than 20 student activists and many others, of which, some were reportedly beaten and tasered. Immediately following the controversy, more protest occurred at Pathumwan police station demanding the authorities to unconditionally free the activists.
In contrast, 22 May of this year looked much different. Approximately 500 people marched to the Democracy Monument for the same reasons as the disastrous year prior. The participants mostly wore ‘Vote-No’ t-shirts, signifying that they will turn down the junta’s charter draft in the August referendum. Surprisingly, nobody got arrested on the event despite the fact that it was much more intense than the previous year.
Protests of 2015
Protest March of 2016
This could be seen as the junta easing its aggression towards its opposers. Although there are many factors leading to this possible easing up, one of the prominent factors is the emergence of New Democracy Movement (NDM), the most active student movement against the military junta.
The NDM was established on 8 June 2015 by a group of the recently arrested and released students who were involved in the events in May, just short of three weeks prior. The group was created in hopes to unite the fragmented student groups of Thailand, to fight back against the authorities. Its first year has proved that the member of the groups are not only brave, but also strategic in that they create activities which antagonize the junta and show Thai society how fragile and corrupt the junta is.
In the past year, the NDM participated in at least three prominent events challenging the junta’s legitimacy and authoritarianism in Thailand. The first event is the protest against the imprisonment of the 14 activists, including the current leading NDM members, who hosted the coup commemoration on 22 May 2015. Weeks later, the 14 activists were arrested from a safe house in Bangkok. They were immediately sent to the Military Court in the late night, which is outside of usual office hours, and were later detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison for 12 days.
During those 12 days, the NDM consistently hosted protests in front of the court and prison demanding authorities to free the activists. Many people participated in the protests. They lit candles and sang ‘Starlight of Hope’ to express their supports and solidarity to the detained activists. Eventually, on 7 July, the Military Court rejected authorities’ request to continue the imprisonment and the 14 activists were released the next morning.
This activity shows the group’s understanding of practically using media coverage. The group made the most of the arrests of the activists -- both before, during and after the release. The coverage became international news and made the junta looks bad to the international community.
The second crucial event is the investigation of the military’s scandalous Rajabhakti Park that involved the embezzlement of millions of baht during the building process. In December 2015, NDM, Resistant Citizen, and other pro-democracy groups planned to highlight the military’s corruption scandal by taking a train down to the park to report on the corruption. This begs questioning: how could a group of students expose corruption by riding a train to see the public park though? The junta, however, given the fragility of its image, ordered the arrest of all 36 activists on the train. This inevitably touched the nerve of the junta supporters who subscribed to the junta’s vow to clean up the corruption that was found in the previous civilian government.
Student being arrested in 2015 Coup comemoration (source: LLTD)
The third contribution, which does not directly confront the junta, was the NDM’s role in the improvement of human rights conditions within Thai society. On 25 April 2016, Kornkanok Khumta, a member of NDM who was arrested for joining the trip to Rajabhakti Park, was sent to the Central Women’s Correction Institute where she was forced to take off all her clothes, in front of a group of people, to undertake a pelvic examination before she was released, despite the fact that the court already granted her bail earlier that day. After she was released, she shared the horrible experience in her Facebook
. Her post gathered over 3500 likes on Facebook, as well as 1188 shares to date.
“‘Put your legs on the stirrups, lower your butt, and open the sarong (dress)’ A lady who looked like a combination of nurse and custodian bluntly told me. An inmate stood by her side as her assistant,” reads Kornkanok’s post.
The post triggered a demand to repeal the pelvic exam in the female prison. At least 16 women’s rights organisations urged
the Department of Corrections to lift such inhumane practice, saying that the examination procedures must be carried out by medical experts and in a manner which respects human dignity and rights. Finally, on 14 May, the Director of the Department apologized
her for the malpractice in the National Human Rights Commission's public forum on the human rights violation within women's correctional center. The director also promised to the Human Rights Commission that the department will repeal the pelvic examination, adding that the stirrups were already removed from the center.
Kornkanok is not the first pro-democracy activist who went to the female jail, but she successfully created public’s outcry on the issue.
When looking at past activities, NDM’s activities created greater impacts when members were arrested, however, Rangsiman Rome, leader of the group, is very satisfied that there have not been arrests or issues with the authorities for the NDM since July 2015. Chonthicha Jangrew, a key NDM member, said a major goal is fight for space for people to feel safe enough that they can get involved with political activity without any issues with authorities.
Factors of success (and failures?)
NDM members mainly come from two types of student groups. The first being members of locally-based student activist groups, like Dao Din, who focus on the issues of people in their community, and the second being university-based student activist groups, like the Liberal League at Thammasat for Democracy, who focus on issues within their universities. Prior to the NDM, these two types of student groups were mostly working apart from one another.
According to Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, there is mutual benefit for Dao Din to be working with a larger group like NDM considering both groups share similar disinterest in current junta issues, and support human rights and the like. He is happy with the reciprocation of support that Dao Din receives from NDM as well, adding that the NDM is a good central organization that helps facilitate the agenda’s of smaller connected groups.
The group is based on five principles of: Democracy, Justice, Political Participation, Human Rights and Peaceful Means. The main goals of the group are to destroy the culture of fear imposed by the Junta, and to aid in the restoration of democracy in Thailand, according to Chonthicha Jangrew, treasurer and prominent member of NDM.
Chonthicha also believes that the NDM is “The main national opposer of the junta,” justifying the notion saying that other groups and organizations are unable to be as active and advocative as the NDM, especially at the scale that they manage to operate at.
National opposer, really?
Although they rarely create concrete or tangible change in a large political scale, The NDM’s efforts are commendable considering the political atmosphere of Thailand. Surachat Bumrungsuk, an International Relations Professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University and a student activist leader from 1973-76, thinks it is debatable for the NDM to call themselves the Main National Opposer, but he also mentions that “The NDM has so many limitations, so when they decide to do something, I think we have to be proud.”
In the past two years, a heavy suppression of rights by the junta, including rights to expression and public assembly, has stifled students’ abilities to create movement. The International community, such as the UN, the EU, the US, have expressed concerned toward human rights violation since the military took power.
Furthermore, Surachat said because of extreme political polarization within Thai society, the NDM faces difficulties garnering support from the pro-establishment, anti-Thaksin middle class.
Surachat added that one mechanism which is still relatively new for student movements is the use of the internet, which allows movements to work much faster. In addition to movement support online, social media and online news sources can help spread information much quicker, and not just only in urban areas. It is now easier for rural student to create and get involved in movements as well.
The NDM is still very new, but has had a successful past year. Rangsiman hopes to establish the organization's longevity through one day turning it into a foundation. He hopes that it will help establish more resources and network and to continue the fight against the establishment.