Hopes and wishes reflected in night talks with protesters

Protesters who stayed overnight in the occupation of Thammasat University and Sanam Luang on 19 September exchanged opinions with strangers as all prepared to sleep in the open.

People started to lay down as the speech went on in Sanam Luang, 19 September night.

At around 20.30 in TU, people could be seen queueing up to use the bathrooms, some brushing their teeth in the bushes. Some were already asleep, preparing for the march the next day.

The protest was the biggest overnight protest since the 2014 coup. The overnight protest allowed people from other parts of the country to attend a political event in the capital as they could stay at the protest site. Many more protesters from other provinces could be seen than at previous flash mobs.

Jane (pseudonym), 33, a factory worker from Khon Kaen, travelled to Bangkok with her friends to join the protest. She was preparing her sleeping spot on the footpath in front of the activity building. As we spoke, her friends were still listening to speeches at Sanam Luang.

Jane's belonging for an overnight stay.

Jane explained the reason for sleeping at the protest site. “To save money, I came here with full support. As I told you, brother, the economy is not good lately. There is no OT.”

She does not like the current government as the economy, living costs and many other things had not changed for the better. The Covid-19 pandemic also has threatened her livelihood as the factory already allows no overtime (OT) work, extra income which Thai factory workers usually depend on to improve their quality of life.

She wants the government to resign.

Across the football field from Jane stands the TU Business School (TBS) where dozens of people were sleeping.

“We want democracy,” said Phawat Hiranphon a salesman from Samut Prakan who decided to spend the night with some friends under the TBS building after failing to book rooms in nearby hotels before they were fully booked with other protesters. 

Things Phawat and his friends brought for their overnight stay included an electric fan, pillows, a power bank, a cooler, extension cord, mosquito repellent, toiletries and skin lotion.

Phawat and his sleeping spot.

Phawat started to attend political protests in July. He said he formerly hated protests because he felt like it was an act of force or mob rule. The true democracy must be implemented through elections. But as he saw the one-sided legal prosecutions of those who opposed the government, including students, he changed his mind.

Jay (pseudonym), then joined the conversation. By coming to the protest, Jay hoped that the people of this country would be able to have a better regime where the monarchy is regulated under democratic principles as with the 10 demands that the students made. Jay also wants to put a stop to enforced disappearances.

Nathakan Kamkaeo, a graduate from England, also spent the night at TU due to the fully booked hotels. She said she wants the monarchy to be regulated under a legal framework without political influence.

People queuing up to use TU bathrooms.

The night in the open was not comfortable. Phawat and his friends complained about the inadequate toilets and questionable red tape like having to wait for police permission to open the public toilet truck. But Phawat hoped these difficulties would be worthwhile.

“We want our difficulties to end in our generation. Nobody will have difficulties like us again. If they are not in trouble, they won’t have to come and protest, will they?” said Phawat.

An old protester and the same old struggle

During the interview with Phawat and his friends ,Saritphon Yotphayung, 74, a now retired former TU student, stopped by to share his political experiences in that very place in 1973 and 1976. 

“I studied at the TU Law faculty in 1965, I went to the march [in October 1973]. I did not want my grandchildren to live like that. I thought it must end in our generation.”

Saritphon said the 1973 protest only wanted democracy, a constitution, elections and the ousting of the 3 dictators (Field Marshal Thanom and Col Narong Kittikachorn and Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien). 

The protest was successful but merely served as a prelude to the October 1976 massacre when people and students were brutally killed after they staged protests against Thanom’s return to Thailand as a monk. The movement at that time was misrepresented by the conservative, royalist media and society as a communist, anti-monarchy movement.

In that year, Saritphon worked at the Ministry of Justice, formerly located near Sanam Luang, where he saw people being killed and hanged. He realized that the dictators had been chased out, welcomed back and then had people killing each other. 

“In the year 1976, I came to know that we were the tools for I don’t know who,” said Saritphon, who saw the incident as his moment of enlightenment.

The old timer also shares the same sentiment as the young people in changing Thai politics for the better.

“Meeting the kids in this generation again, I don’t want them to be 74 and still having to come and sit like this again. I want it to end already.”

Saritphon, who bicycled his way to TU, said he would go back home late.

The Night Owls

Volunteers were responsible for overseeing the situation and safety in the protest. As people lay down in Sanam Luang and TU, the process to safeguard the protesters went well .

Piyarat Chongthep, a former political activist and MP candidate for the Future Forward Party, was responsible for over 270 volunteers overseeing the situation outside TU. Volunteers could be recognized by their blue armbands. 

Piyarat Chongthep

Piyarat said 170 people had registered as volunteers, then 100 protesters and former red shirt protest guards also joined. He was concerned about the possible incompatibility but it eventually turned out just fine.

Piyarat has been organizing the volunteers since the protest on 18 August at the Democracy Monument. They are responsible for public order at protests, traffic management and ensuring that protesters do not bring weapons to the protests by checking their belongings.

The volunteers on one hand work with the police in overseeing safety and on the other, they are also look out for a police crackdown. At night, the volunteers were divided into 3 shifts, taking turns to monitor safety and the movements of riot control police.

Piyarat was involved in the overnight protest at TU in 2018. He said that riot control police usually make their move at around 3-5 in the morning.

The volunteer guards were divided into 2 groups, independent from each other. Piyarat’s group oversaw the situation outside TU, while a group made up of TU students looked after the situation inside TU.

The TU guard team can be recognized by armband with a TU abbreviation in Thai.

Prachatai was unable to contact the TU group leader, but TU volunteers said that their basic job was to keep the situation safely under control, screen vehicles will entering TU, patrol the perimeter and look after the well-being of protesters sleeping inside TU.