Student activists still cannot go beyond their own comfort zones to build a larger network to bring about changes in Thai society, says political activist Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat. Student movements will have no impact until they can inspire people to come out.
Sirawith is an anti-government activist who was attacked many times under the junta government, none were brought to justice. He was active long before political activism became mainstream.
On 14 July, Prachatai English interviewed Sirawith on his perspective on the student movement in the current political atmosphere. Sirawith pointed out the flaws of the student groups.
Big picture and shared mission are missing
As a former political activist, Sirawith said he believes that it is nearly impossible to see another event led by university students like 14 October 1973 in the near future. There are many active student groups that claim to be a union, a federation or a centre of all university students who share the same beliefs, but Sirawith said none of them have succeeded in creating a network that shares the same overall agenda.
In terms of quantity and quality, Sirawith said student groups that claimed to be unions of all students fail to bring out a large number of people to participate at events. When they claim to be big groups but the turnouts were small and the events had no impact, Sirawith said it is disappointing.
Each group seeks media coverage under their own names, not as a university student network as a whole because they have different agendas, Sirawith explained. He admitted that during his time he too was not able to gather a large group of students with a clear agenda and inspire the public to join.
The former activist said there are internal problems within each group that the public might not know of. Sirawith elaborated that each person does not want others to be outstanding; the outstanding ones would be pulled down. Sirawith believes ego plays a big part in this problem.
“At the end, in past events, we criticized the older groups but we sometimes can’t move forward,” Sirawith said.
Protestors turning on the flashlight on their phones (top) and holding their hands up in the three-finger 'Hunger Games' salute (bottom) towards the Democracy Monument on 18 July.
When student activists said they are looking for shared political beliefs, Sirawith said they are actually focusing more on each other’s flaws.
Sirawith said politics is about compromise, building networks and finding common ground. He suggested student activists go beyond looking for each other’s flaws and start building a strong network in order to bring about change.
Back in February after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, university students nationwide came out for weeks to protest it. But the protests only happened on-campus.
Sirawith said it was an impressive movement which he had not been able to achieve when he was an activist, but he said it should have expanded beyond just flash mobs within their own universities. When an outsider looked in, they would not see any clear purpose of the demonstrations as there had not been any advance in the demonstrations in two weeks. The advance he mentioned was, for example, students from every university coming out to protest at once outside their campuses.
Sirawith said it was like that because students were in their comfort zone of each university. He understood that one of the reasons might be because the Public Assembly Act is not enforced on university campuses, but he said that is as if the students have been cornered into spaces prepared by the other side so the authorities do not have to worry about them.
The big question student leaders had to answer after each event is “what’s next?”
Sirawith said on 21 July, after the anti-government protest on Saturday 18 July with thousands of people, that the protest was only a flash mob without a clear goal or plan to move forward.
He questioned if the turnout was because of students’ competence and their well-developed strategies or just because of short-term disappointment in the government during these times. If it is the second reason, he doubts if people will come out when there is less anger.
“Events can happen, but events for an ongoing long-term movement and with a goal in view, how will they do that? This is an important question,” Sirawith said.
Most students are not struggling
Sirawith said change brought about by students has not happened yet and this might be because most of them are not the ones who are struggling with this political system so they will not fully understand what marginalized people are facing.
He explained that most of the younger generations grew up when Thailand was developing so they did not have to struggle much.
The government has given the people negative rights, which include rights over their own bodies and the right to work at a job. Sirawith said most people are satisfied with those rights — they can travel, they can live and they can eat — they might not feel the need for other political rights.
However, he said that those are not real rights, but they are something the government created to make the people feel like they have freedom.
Marginalized people who are struggling do not have time to come out because they are busy trying to get by.
“Most people who are struggling might not be well-informed, but when people who are well-informed come out, they never been through any hardship,” Sirawith said.
He questioned if students fully understand the problems, or if they only want to voice their opinions more than getting the other side out of power.
“At this time, students are talking from the perspective of bringing back their future. There might be some people who are always making demands, but most students may not have seen that this is a serious issue,” Sirawith said. “If we see that this is a serious issue, there must already be an uprising to do something to stop them from being in power for a long time and destroying the future of people throughout the country. Do we see this as a big enough issue?”
Bring out more people to create impact
Sirawith suggested student activist groups, all of which he believes have many different missions, join together to set shared short-term goals and focus on achieving those goals.
After they can mobilize younger groups, Sirawith said they should begin to think about how to encourage the public of other ages to join their movements, which is another challenging thing to figure out. He explained that Thai people were not brought up to gather to make demands for what they want and the majority of the people know what the problems are but nothing is done other than complaining.
The former activist suggested that to get the public to join, they must look into the roots of Thai culture, find out what they believe, find out what appeals to them and then adapt these things into their movements.
The key to fighting dictatorship is a large assembly, Sirawith said.
Interview by Chatchai Mongkol and Potsawat Saekoo