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Student activists and the referendum: The pebble in the boot

For the past number of months, youth and student activists around the country have been challenging the upcoming constitutional referendum, and, certainly with the help of the junta, have made it clear this referendum is a democratic farce. 
 
On 7 August 2016, Thai citizens, many of whom are unaware there is a referendum, and or are unable to make an informed vote, will take to voting stations to decide on a constitutional referendum, put forward by the junta. 
 
In Thailand, the country with 99.99 per cent democracy, according to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister and junta head, the upcoming referendum has been nothing but a testament to the lack thereof healthy democracy within the country’s border, and student activists have played a solid role in establishing that point. 
 
Since my arrival to Thailand as an intern at Prachatai and a researcher of student activism in early May 2016, the trend of anti-democracy coming from the top has only worsened in wake of the referendum. Here is a brief painting of what has unfolded in the campaigns of students and youth during this build up.
 
 
A student activist motivates the crowd during a protest of fellow activists who were arrested for campaigning against the referendum.

Referendum and juntas campaign undemocratic to the core

 
The referendum content itself is undemocratic in its nature. Citizens will vote on two jargony questions. Simplified, voters will decide if they approve the proposed draft constitution (which dampens electoral power), and if they will allow the Senate and House of Representatives to jointly approve the next Prime Minister (which in addition to the constitution, will make it possible for the current non-elected government to appoint and approve the next government). 
 
The junta has also established laws to mold a political atmosphere that is hostile to the viability of democratic processes by making it increasingly difficult for voters to understand, discuss, and access the upcoming referendum.  
 
The largest concern has been Article 61 of the referendum act, which says that any campaigning, especially with dissenting perspectives of the constitution and referendum, can be subject to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,000 Baht. The junta, however is allowed to campaign and educate voters. Article 61 has stunted the abilities of media, activists, politicians, and everyday people to have open discussions about the referendum, but has not halted it altogether.
 
Furthermore, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s Order No. 3/2015 bans political gatherings of 5 or more people, thus limiting not only the content of meetings, but also the meetings themselves. Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act, which limits spreading “false” information online, has been used to mute online referendum critics. Lastly, Article 44 of the interim constitution provides power to the junta to do, well, basically whatever it wants. 
 
The Orwellian “Newspeak” style of the junta is certainly what is making much of these restrictions possible. Sure, people do have the right to vote, but when discourse, accessible information, and education are considered threats to peace and order during the time of an vote, there are some serious problems.  
 
Luckily, Thailand has just gone through it’s second session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review where the country was reminded that the whole world is watching. Although the government seemed rather unfazed by the criticisms of freedom of expression and the referendum, the pressure may have created some space to let young activists, and of course many others who challenge the referendum, have their say. 

Young activist responses to the referendum

 
In 1973 and 1976, Thailand saw incredible political student movements which shaped the country. Today, that is hardly the case. Due to factions within the priorities of student and youth activists, complacency or apathy, and enjoyable pastimes being available in school, who knows if a repeat of the 1970s will happen again. However, for the students and youth who do the hard, barely rewarding, and risky work of political activism, I would say they are the pebble in the junta’s boot that, although small, is enough to disrupt the rampant march to pass this referendum.
 
A prominent force leading the charge against the referendum has been the New Democracy Movement (NDM), a pro-democracy youth and student activist group based in Bangkok, who consistently, like most student groups, use non-violent forms of protest.
 
Following traditional non-violent methods, the NDM has hosted many seminars and information sessions denouncing the referendum, some of which were attended by over 500 supporters. Many of these events have been met with significant authority presence.
 
 
Attendees at recent vote no campaign event. (Source: NDM’s Facebook page)
 
Kudos are in order to Thammasat University, which has hosted many of the larger campaigns of students activist. Other universities have been much more resistant by silencing their students and staff, and pulling out of prior made arrangements for activities.
 
Other traditional methods included handing out flyers and information, which led to various arrests of activists and a reporter. Arrests and detainments have been made typically for violating Article 61, or NCPO Order No. 3/2015. 
 
The arrests pushed the NDM and other student groups to move to more symbolic measures of protest that would make Gene Sharp proud. During a visit from activists while seven comrades were imprisoned for referendum flyer distribution, the police confiscated undemocratic balloons and stickers. The response led to balloons being used as a signifier of defiance across the country. 
 
 
Pro-democracy activists and academics join the balloon campaign at Chiang Mai University in the northern province of Chiang Mai (source: LACMUD’s Facebook page)
 
Other groups, like the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy, have taken to campaigning with toys, while students at Kasetsart University have used banners. Recently a group of high school students, made statements, and read anti-charter materials to teddy bears to raise awareness for school education problems with the referendum as well.
 
 
High School Student, Parit Chiwarak, reading about the draft consitution to teddy bears. (Photo from Parit Chiwarak’s Facebook)
 
The internet has also played a major role in the abilities of student activists to fight the referendum, regardless of Article 44. This goes much deeper than “Which funny Prayut Quote are you?” quizzes. 
 
I would argue the beauty lies in the network of information distribution. Academics and experts analyse and simplify the barriers of information complexity put forth by the junta, then send the information to the youngsters who can create gorgeous, comedic, interesting, but always digestible content to be distributed by the pages with vast followings. 
 
Of course, the internet is also a good way to deflate authority by sharing funny slips of the officials, like this video of a Thai Election Commissioner testing the 10 year durability of the new vote boxes, which is going viral literally as I write this article.
 
 
Student and youth activists have expanded the space allowed for discourse, and thus proved the undemocratic nature of the referendum. Nobody knows what the result of the referendum will be at this point, but let’s hope that young activists’ contributions to the democracy of Thailand have been enough to progress to a better future. 
 
 
What it takes to make a referendum look undemocratic. (Photo from NDM Facebook page)