Chulalongkorn students stage anti-govt protest despite resistance from university

Students at Chulalongkorn University staged an anti-government protest on Friday (14 August) despite resistance from the university and heavy rain which forced them to find a new location.  

Protesters flashing the three-finger salute together as they gather on the ground floor of the Faculty of Arts building

The demonstration, organized by student groups Spring Movement and Nisit Chula Party, took place at the Faculty of Arts’ Maha Chakri Sirindhorn building. It was joined by around 600 people, occupying most of the building’s ground floor, as well as the area in front of the building despite the rain which continued to fall for most of the night.

Plainclothes police officers were seen around the Faculty of Political Science earlier in the afternoon. A group of plainclothes officers were also seen around the Faculty of Arts later in the evening. After facing resistance from the university and as heavy rain continued to fall, the organisers announced at 16.45 that the demonstration would take place at the Faculty of Arts.

One of the organisers explained on stage that university administration previously told them that they will be able to use an on-campus location, but later told them that the location is not ready. They then invited the protestors to flash the three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute and shout “stop harassing citizens!”

Protestors filling the ground floor of the building as the evening went on.

The organizers previously tried to obtain permission from the university to organize the demonstration and announced that the event would take place at the university’s sport stadium. However, the university’s Office of Student Affairs released an announcement on Friday morning that the university did not give the students permission to organize the event, claiming that their request was on such short notice that they were unable to coordinate with relevant internal and external agencies in order to prevent “illegal activities and expansion of conflict to the point that may cause violence” in time.

The university’s announcement also stated that they would take disciplinary actions against the students if the event went ahead.

Spring Movement and Nisit Chula Party then announced on their Facebook pages that they would hold the demonstration on the university field in front of the statues of King Chulalongkorn and King Vajiravudh, and that they are willing to take any punishment from the university. However, heavy rain began to fall around 15.00, forcing them to move the event from 16.00 to 17.00 at the Faculty of Arts.

14 lecturers from the Faculty of Law also issued a joint statement against the university’s announcement stating that the students have the right and freedom to express their political opinion and to participate in a peaceful assembly, and that the university, as a government agency, should respect their rights and encourage freedom of expression and assembly, instead of restricting their expression, and even if the protestors violate the law, it is the duty of other government officials to deliver any resulting punishment.

The statement also said that the university should encourage the exercise of freedom while also choosing appropriate security measures, and noted that the field where the demonstration was planned to take place has been used for public assemblies before, such as a demonstration held in support of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in March 2014.

The Faculty of Political Science Student Union also issued a statement saying that preventing students from organizing a demonstration on campus is a violation of the students’ freedom of expression and that the university should protect rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, in accordance with international principles of democracy, as well as students’ welfare, instead of pushing them out of campus to face greater risk.

According to Section 3 of the Public Assembly Act, the Act does not apply to assemblies taking place within an educational institution.

A group of students from the nearby Triam Udom Suksa School also joined the protest. 

Another speaker who gave a speech about the role of educational institutions in the student movement also said that, by not letting students organize a demonstration on campus, the university is attempting to block students from expressing their political opinion.

“The university grounds do not belong to any one individual. It is not a space where a group of people can use to seek benefit. The university has a duty to be an academic marketplace for society, to open up a space for debate, but the administration claims that all activities must be academic. For me, this is a major misinterpretation of what academic means. Academia must be connected to the society and the people. Otherwise, it cannot be called academic.”

Students also gave speeches about the gentrification and over-commercialization of the area around the university, which has caused the loss of communities surrounding campus. One speaker mentioned the Chao Mae Thap Thim Saphan Lueang Shrine, a local Chinese shrine which faced demolition and relocation after the Office of Property Management of Chulalongkorn University (PMCU), which owns the land on which the shrine is located, planned to build a student hall on the land – a plan which has now been delayed after it faced resistance from both students and locals.

Many speakers also harked back to the history of resistance in Thailand. One speaker read out parts of the lyrics to “Starlight of Faith” (แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา), a song written by academic and revolutionary Jit Phumisak, who was also a student of the Faculty of Arts.

“We don’t have it half as hard as it was for Jit,” said the speaker, who then ended the speech by saying “Don’t forget to call for this place to be a place where people of different cultures can also use. We’re not just students, but we are citizens.”

A group of students were seen with placards calling out Thai mainstream media for not paying attention to the student movement and other political issues. The first placard says "A media which ignores the people is a reflection of a country which ignores democracy." The second one says "can you report about abduction victims as much as you do about a dog?" The third one says "I have lost faith in Thai mainstream media." 

Another speaker also read out Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua’s poem “From the Earth to the Sky,” saying that the Red Shirt movement is “the strongest and most stigmatized people’s movement.”

“I would like to give a round of applause for the bravery of our Red Shirt brothers and sisters who fought for democracy,” he said.  

A student held up a picture of activist-in-exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who has been missing since the beginning of June. 

Another speaker quoted from Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s speech on moral courage, given at the funeral of Ampon Tangnoppakul, or “Ah Kong,” a lèse majesté prisoner who died in prison while serving his sentence.

“Moral courage means that despite knowing that if we persevere and fight for the ideas or principles we believe in, we may be threatened, or we might risk our lives, we still persevere on coming out to fight. That’s what Professor Somsak said. If you ask how moral courage is important, does everyone think the university has moral courage?” said the speaker, who then went on to say “when Chula doesn’t have moral courage, then what do the students have? The only thing that will help us is the courage to come out and speak the truth, the courage to come out and accept that, right now, the country is having problems, the courage for the media to present the truth for the majority of the people to hear.”

The speaker said that the Thai people have not shown enough moral courage, and even though there are people and organisations who are fighting for justice, the majority has never been brave enough to speak out and help these people. “If we are brave enough to come out, perhaps what happened to Wanchalearm might not have happened, perhaps Penguin (Parit Chiwarak)’s arrest would not have happened. If we are brave enough to come out, no one will have to face what a lot of activists have had to face,” she said.

The student during her speech about moral courage

“I am very afraid of what will happen,” she said, “and I know that many of us are also afraid, but I would like everyone to think about the activists who spoke onstage, some of the activists who lost even their lives to call for justice for all of us in society, and have the courage to speak the truth. Courage is not getting rid of fear, but courage is doing what is right. Even though we are still afraid, it’s time we do the right thing.”

“Many people here might have been told by their parents not to get involved with political activities and to not say too much, but if we don’t come out, the next person who may get carried off to a police station might be the person standing next to us. It could be our underclassmen. It could be our friends, and even if we, Chula students, come out this time and we don’t win, we might still be able to go back and stay in society because we are privileged, but there are many other people outside the university gates, people who don’t have the opportunity to get an education like Chula students, are dying from the economic condition left by this government, and it is the duty of all of us here to come out and fight for people who don’t have the privilege and don’t have a voice in society.

“What use will we have as students and professors if we have never used our voices to move society. If we claim that we are a pillar, what we should do is support the democracy which gives the people equal opportunity, not be a broken pillar which hold up a dictatorhip.” 

She called on the media to show the truth of the harassment students now face from the authorities and to have the courage to join the students. She also called on celebrities and academics to come out and show their support for the students.

Sirin Mungcharoen on stage

Sirin Mungcharoen, a member of Spring Movement, called on international media to pay attention to what is happening in Thailand. 

“Please tell the world how fed up we are with the dictatorship. with people's lives being ignored, with activists being harassed by the authorities with the enforced disappearances, with the government siding with the capitalist and leaving the people to suffer," she said. 

Aomtip Kerdplanant giving her speech

Aomtip Kerdplanant, a graduate of the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University, also gave a speech inviting graduates to not join this year’s graduation ceremony, which she said is an act of civil disobedience which breaks no law. She also said that the campaign is more about who the degree certificates are conferred by and “We would be happy to receive our degrees from the professors who taught us.”

At 18.00, protesters also sang the national anthem while holding up the three-finger salute.

The demonstration at Chulalongkorn University came within hours of the arrest of Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a student activist who was accused of sedition and illegal assembly. The organisers made announcements updating the crowd on the situation and at the end of the demonstration encouraged protesters to join the crowd at the Samranrat Police Station, where Parit was being held.   

The crowd spilled out onto the courtyard outside the building. Many stood with their umbrella listening to speeches despite the rain. 

The current wave of student-led protests in Thailand has continued for the fourth consecutive weeks now, with demonstrations taking place all over the country calling for democracy and reform. Most demonstratons repeat the three demands made at the mass protest on 18 July: an end to authorities' harassment of the people, a new constitution, and the dissolution of parliament. 

The protest at Chulalongkorn University took place at the same time as another demonstration at Ramkhamhaeng University, and only a few days before the mass protest at the Democracy Monument on Sunday (16 August), which has now been dubbed the largest protest in Thailand since the 2014 military coup. 

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