From protest to politics: Activists discuss political future

A recent meeting in Bangkok brings into conversation activists working in the Northeast and activists working in Bangkok. While all agree on the importance of political education, their perspectives differ on how to build an effective political bloc in this repressive time.

Press release by the Project for a Social Democracy (PSD). Reporting by Peera Songkünnatham

On September 22, the nascent political initiative “Project for a Social Democracy” (PSD) organized a meeting in Bangkok to gauge activists’ interest in working together to create a social democratic political foundation.

Since its takeover in May 2014, the military junta has banned political gatherings of more than four people, as well as any public activity from political parties.

While not a political gathering, it was an open meeting of a political nature, according to the organizers.

Beyond red and yellow

Representative from the Commoners Party Kornchanok Saenprasert, 31, says that the idea for a political party has been discussed among his group for several years.

Formerly allied with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), commonly known as yellow shirts, the core of the Commoners Party who came from the Dao Din group at Khon Kaen University became disenchanted with the PAD’s anti-democratic inclinations in the eve of the 2006 coup d’etat.

“We weren’t ‘red,’ but we couldn’t be ‘yellow’ anymore,” Kornchanok speaks of his group’s splintering from the PAD. The group now occasionally works with self-identified red shirts.

Thailand has already had a social democratic political party. Somsak Kosaisuk, a PAD leader, formed the Social Democratic Party of Thailand in 2009. But Kornchanok says his group was already planning to build a separate political party based in Isaan by that point.

“Six years into serious discussions about a political party, we were about to go register [the Commoners Party]. But the coup [in 2014] happened just one day before,” says Kornchanok.

Atipong Pathanasethpong, a PSD representative, expresses the desire to create a center-left political party riding on the banner of wealth transfer and a welfare state.

Atipong, 35, envisions PSD as a breeding ground for a resurgence of political parties with a clear ideological platform in Thailand, whose precursors were purged in waves of anti-communist repression from the 1950s to the 1970s.

According to Atipong, the PSD positions itself in contrast to the relatively flexible and noncommittal platforms of all major current political parties in Thailand.

Kornchanok agrees that there needs to be as many political parties with a clear ideological platform as possible. He plans to run for a seat in parliament under the Commoners Party if there is a general election, but he is willing to work with other political groups on the left.

From protest to politics

Kornchanok’s experience as an organizer for the New Democracy Movement (NDM) taught him that it is not sufficient to organize around a handful of student activists in hopes of inspiring a mass mobilization.

“The lesson from NDM is very clear: there wasn’t mass support that was ready [to become active],” says the Commoners Party representative. “We can’t expect our organized protests to bring out the masses. It’s nearly impossible to rely upon the prospects of serichon [free people] becoming politically active.”

Outspoken student protestors were the faces of NDM, and their peaceful confrontations with the military government have led to various detentions and prosecutions.

Social media campaigner Prempapat Palittapolkarnpim cautions against an event-centric mode of organizing, like public forums and flash mobs. There is already an abundance of events, he says, but not enough sustained and system-level work.

Prempapat co-founded NewGround, a group aiming to increase young people’s awareness of their stakes in politics and policymaking.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist recently removed from his position as the president of Chulalongkorn University’s Student Council, agrees that policy concerns need to play a larger role in political organizing formerly centered on acts of protest.

“I’d like to do something that breaks away from old ways of organizing. I want to do more policy work to tackle the political structure.” Netiwit refers mainly to lack of student welfare and of student participation in decision-making at Chulalongkorn University.

On establishing political parties, however, the 21-year-old activist who has said he wants a political career demurs. He thinks that now is not the time for announcing a political party. This is a dangerous time, he says, and political work should proceed more gradually and discreetly.

“Nowadays the powers that be are severe. Having a political party now may even make things worse,” says the student activist, who claims that powerful figures from outside the university also play a role in enforcing disciplinary measures on him.

Bridging the divide

Representative from the New E-Saan Movement Nitikorn Khamchoo, 27, speaks of the need to bridge the gap between community organizing and national political participation.

The New E-Saan Movement is a coalition of community organizers in the Northeast who fight for human dignity in the face of expropriation at the hands of the government and big businesses.

In less than three years of existence, the New E-Saan Movement has organized public forums in Bangkok, Khon Kaen, and in organized communities, bringing together community leaders and experts to explore issues affecting Isaan people. Even as they attempted to bridge the divide, Nitikorn observes that “there hasn’t been connection between the upper structure and the people below.”

Nitikorn finds that community organizers tend to be tied down to the pressing issues at home. Because of this, serious discussion of structural issues, or how the city connects to the village, takes the backseat. The level of structure-level political education remains low, Nitikorn finds.

Netiwit is somewhat dismissive to the prospects of co-organizing trips for Chulalongkorn students to learn about Isaan communities fighting for justice. He explains that his university provides a lot of trips for students to go out to rural communities, but these trips are devoid of ideological cultivation.

In contrast to going rural, Netiwit prefers an engagement with issues in the city. He sees promise in secondary schoolers and university students today who are becoming politically active in large numbers from issues closest to themselves, like student uniform and student welfare.

This August, Netiwit organized a public hearing to learn about the problems of merchants renting space from the university’s Suan Luang Square mall. The university’s administration tried to cancel the hearing, and later punished Netiwit for organizing the event calling it “a matter of adults.”

A time for political education

Gearing up to a future of civilian rule, the participants of the meeting rank political education as their first priority. They think that a potential social democratic foundation should play the role of educator for the Thai public.

The PSD aspires to emulate Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is affiliated with the country’s Social Democratic Party. The foundation operates with full-time staff in over 100 offices worldwide in order to promote the ideas and practices of social democracy.

Atipong Pathanasethpong adds that the PSD hopes to promote not only social democracy but also political literacy on concepts like the political spectrum from left to right.

“This is to help people better realize the differences and similarities between different ideologies, and to raise awareness of the benefits of having ideology-led political parties,” he says.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal supports the foundation as a place for “an international marketplace of ideas.” In particular, he hopes it can act as a hub for producing and translating up-to-date political theories for young people.

The Commoners Party and the New E-Saan Movement have already begun their educational initiatives: The Commoners School and the New E-Saan School.

A general election is currently set for November 2018 but the projected election date can still be pushed back further. The country’s premier has vowed not to give back power to civilian rule until the country is “free from conflict.”

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Isaan Record.