Most high school kids have enough to worry about without demanding reforms on the streets in an autocratic system.
But in Thailand, that’s exactly what thousands of students – some 10 years old – have been making up for in the last four months.
They teamed up with college students and long-standing democracy activists to call for change in a country run by a regime loyal to the monarchy, with a constitution created in the wake of the military coup.
Demonstrations continue in Bangkok, where police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters while the country’s parliament discussed ways to change the constitution, but in a way that falls far short of protesters ’demands for meaningful democratic reform.
Wearing a three-finger salute and wearing a white ribbon borrowed from “The Hunger Games” – symbols of their resistance – many students take part in protests still dressed in school uniforms.
Originally, they were motivated by plans to change the strictly traditional Thai school culture – a common indication in protests: “Our first dictatorship is the school.”
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group said this week that at least four protesters under the age of 18 have been arrested for violating a decree that was passed when the government declared a state of emergency on 15 October.
Akkarasorn Opilan, known as 16-year-old Ang-Ang, said his interest in politics began “for some time” but became even more intense this year when he joined his first August protest.
“I went with my friends and my mom,” he said. “My mother doesn’t usually join protests, but she does [sometimes] joins me for security reasons. “
He articulates the three demands made by the movement: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, the rewording of the constitution, and the severe limitation of the power of the monarchy.
Prayuth, a retired Army general who seized power in a coup in 2014, changed the constitution in 2017 to ensure continued dominance of the monarchy and military, appointing all 250 members of the Senate.
“It is important to me and Thailand that the future of this country belongs to us,” Ang-Ang said. “The parliament, the cabinet and the government may be in power now, but the country needs the younger generations for the country’s future.
“Our voice must also be important. We are the voice of the next generation in Thailand,” he added.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said the recent protests were organic and spontaneous.
“These people are very young. They show up in their school uniforms – kids. Kids. They’re not affiliated with any party or official movement,” he said.
According to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 10 have already taken part in the protests. He wears most masks – not only Covid-19, but also protection against persecution.
“We have documents that show the fear of the police and security forces – they went to high schools and looked for students who took part in pro-democracy activities,” Sunai said.
“They seem to have worked with schools – schools are working with authorities to put more pressure on these students,” he said.
On August 24, two groups of high school students filed a complaint with the Department of Education accusing 109 schools of harassing students participating in pro-democracy protests.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the students said 103 harassments were reported in the three days following the August 16 rally.
UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, said in August that it was concerned that children could be harmed during the protests.
University students also played a key role in the demonstrations.
Panisa Khueanphet, 21, a quarterly student of communication arts at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, from the northern province of Chiang Rai, said she was protesting “for a better life.”
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“My highest dream is to change society and change the social structure. I want to see my country develop before I die,” he said.
His parents asked him not to publish on social media about the monarchy for fear of retaliation from the authorities. The defamation law prohibits any Thai from criticizing or violating the monarchy.
To be “dangerous”
Older, more conservative Thais were shocked when the king was nominated by lawyer and activist Anon Nampa at a stage demonstration on August 3rd. He and eight other people have been arrested and the charge is still pending.
Before his arrest, Nampa told NBC News, “I’m dangerous to the existence of a dictatorship. I’m trying to be a dangerous person. That’s not what I’m making compromises about. It’s fighting for change in the political game.”
Elections took place last year, but for democracy activists it was a hollow practice that strengthened the power of the former military junta, which gains legitimacy from the monarchy.
“It’s a long saga, but this student-led protest movement is the culmination of Thailand’s struggle to get into the 21st century,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
The 2014 coup was seen as a response to the success of Thaksin Shinawatra, a political leader whose party won four elections and thus contradicted the country’s traditional power base.
Support for the goals of the student-led movement was further strengthened by the February expulsion of the anti-institutional Future Forward party.
“By ousting Future Forward, the Thai elite said,‘ People like you have no place in this society and have no right to get involved in political events, ’” said Duncan McCargo, a political professor at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the new book Future Forward .
“Even those who didn’t support or particularly loved Future Forward – it was a huge thing,” McCargo said.
Traditionally, Thailand’s paternalistic leadership ruled through the moral authority provided by the country’s much-loved ruler, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, who ruled from 1946 until his death in 2016.
In 2011, Forbes magazine estimated his personal fortune at at least $ 30 billion, making him comfortably the richest ruler in the world at the time.
His heir and successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as Rama X, handed over this fortune in 2018. The king, a less respected figure than his father, spends most of his time in Germany and, through his connections, has begun controversial irregular military appointments. A miniature poodle, Fufut, was promoted to air chief marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force.
The protest movement is not universally popular.
“These demands are so shocking to the Thai people,” said Thitinan, a political scientist. “They grew up under the late king. The current king is very different and people are slowly walking around, slowly starting to cope with these needs.
“But it is a long, frightening, upward task to reform the monarchy. Would you allow the ruler to reform it?”
Patrick Smith from London reported; Nat Sumon reported from Bangkok.
Reuters contributed to the report.