KHON KAEN – Demanding no further delay of a national election, Khon Kaen University students, many of them first-time voters, staged a protest on Wednesday evening. Fueled by small pro-election demonstrations across the country in the past weeks, the peaceful protesters gathered at the university’s southern gate among a heavy police presence.
About 40 protesters chanted pro-elections slogans, waved placards, and performed political songs in the city’s first protest since the junta lifted the ban on political activities in late December. An equal number of police officers checked the IDs of protesters and warned them not to block traffic, but did not intervene.
After having promised and postponed the polls several times, last year the military junta floated February 24 as a date for the election. But an official confirmation expected earlier this month did not happen, apparently because of the coronation of the new king on May 4.
Critics and activists believe the junta that has ruled the country for almost five years is using the royal event to delay the elections yet another time.
“This is the fifth time the polls have been delayed, yet they’re always saying ‘it won’t be postponed again’,” said Dome, a student organizer of the protest in Khon Kaen who asked to be identified only by his nickname. “We can’t go on like this. It is unacceptable.”
Similar pro-election protests were held in Ubon Ratchathani, Maha Sarakham, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Nakhon Pathom and Bangkok in the past weeks.
Niran Pitakwatchara, a former National Human Rights Commissioner who lives in Ubon Ratchathani, believes the government is deliberately delaying the polls. “They will try to ensure that elections are held only when their chances of winning are highest,” he told The Isaan Record in a phone interview.
The junta is not only ignoring people’s desire for a democratically elected government but it is also performing poorly in addressing grievances in the Northeast, he argued. “Pressing issues such as poverty and inequality, the military government hasn’t been able to effectively address,” Niran said.
The protest group in Khon Kaen, consisting mainly of students who have never voted before, also stressed the right for people to elect the government and participate in politics. They criticized the junta for coming to power through a coup and implementing policies without public participation.
“The government taxes me but it doesn’t represent me or my interests,” said Dome, who is also a member of the student activist group Dao Din. “They go and spend my money on programs that benefit Big Capital at the expense of everyone else in society. That’s what really makes me angry as a citizen.”
Based on discussions with students, Saowanee T. Alexander, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes that many first-voters are tired of the military government and its lack of leadership. “We can see this even among those who were never interested in politics,” she said.
First-time voters make up more than 10% of the electorate or about 7 million people. The Election Commission has estimated that the total number of eligible voters stands at around 50 million.
“This will be the first time for many university students, so they’re pretty excited about it,” Saowanee said. “They’re already in that mode — talking about candidates and hearing about policies.”
Saowanee, who observed several recent elections campaign events in the Northeast, believes that an increasing number of people might get into election mood if political parties continue their campaigns in the region. More and more people might then openly demand an election, she said.
But Saowanee remains pessimistic that the burgeoning pro-election movement can sway the regime’s decision, even if a further delay of the polls might have an impact on the government’s international image.
“Keep in mind that even if we have a new constitution, we still have Article 44, which can be used any time,” Saowanee said, referring to a section of the constitution that grants Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha absolute power. “This is the junta’s magic wand.
The 2017 military-drafted constitution was passed in a controversial referendum in 2016 and came into effect the following year. Critics see the new constitution as part of the junta’s mission to remake the country’s political system and introduce weak coalition governments in order break the control of large parties like Pheu Thai Party over parliament.
Niran argued that under the new constitution, Thailand’s political system is bound for another period of instability.
“We went from the stability, clarity, and public participation of the 1997 constitution era and regressed to the 2017 constitution era, which is full of uncertainty, confusion, and volatility,” Niran said. “It is a worrying indicator for the future of Thailand.”
But for students at the protest in Khon Kaen, the most immediate question is when they get to exercise their political right for the first time.
“We’re supposed to have an election every four years,” Dome said. “The people have the right to choose their leaders. The junta has no right to be there.”
Written and edited by The Isaan Record. Reporting by Mike Eckel