#SaveOurFuture: A test for the awakening of Isaan’s students

Guest contribution by Weerawat Somnuk

Something changed from the moment that the Constitutional Court revealed its verdict on the Future Forward Party (FFP). As news spread of the party’s dissolution and the 10-year political ban for its executives, the mostly young supporters of the party took to social media. Platform by platform, stream upon stream, social media was flooded with posts venting sadness, frustration, and anger.

In the 2019 election, FFP surprised many by outpacing even the Northeast’s favorite, the Pheu Thai Party, in several areas. In Khon Kaen’s Constituency 1, which includes a number of universities, an avalanche of support from university students and other voters unseated the stalwart incumbent from Pheu Thai, and propelled Thitinan Saengnak to victory by a clear margin.

As waves of disagreement over the party ban spread beyond Bangkok, the educational institutions of Isaan flared up like caches of dissent. One by one, they erupted. In the central heartland of the Isaan plateau, Mahasarakham University and Khon Kaen University thrummed with rage. In the region’s upper and lower areas, the grounds of Chaiyaphum Rajabhat University, Loei Rajabhat University, and even Ubon Ratchathani’s secondary schools bristled with indignation.

Critically, these students did not stop at the #SaveFutureForward hashtag. They translated their frustration into the hashtag #SaveOurFuture, lest the world misinterpret their stirrings for near-sighted, juvenile partisanship. They made it very clear that their concerns are for the direction of the entire nation.

A political gathering of students at Mahasarakham University on 27 February 2020.Photo from the MSU Democracy Front Facebook page

Waking up to revive democracy

Pongsathorn Tancharoen, a first-year politics and governance student at Mahasarakham University, only became an activist last year. His group, the MSU Democracy Front, was formed at the end of 2019 in reaction to the Constitutional Court’s ruling to nullify the status as an MP of FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit. The group organized a flash mob protest at their university to coincide with the one organized in support of Thanathorn at the BTS Siam skywalk in Bangkok on 14 December.

“We don’t want the other parts of society to fight alone,” Phongsathorn says. “We want to show that the people of ‘Sarakham or the students of Mahasarakham University are not going to put up with this. We’re not going to retreat, and we have the capacity for political activism.”

Phongsathorn points out that Maha Sarakham is a province with more than its fair share of educational institutions. Between Mahasarakham University, with its 40,000 students, and Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University, with 20,000 students, there are a lot of FFP voters in the province. That is to say nothing of the voting students of Maha Sarakham’s Educational College, Technical College, and several other institutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the dissolution of the FFP on 21 February caused such a stir there. The politics and governance student also remarks that the party’s dissolution convinced many students to participate in these protests. The overriding sentiment is that they, the people who voted for the FFP, are still here even if the party is no longer.

Phongsathorn poses the question, “Is parliamentary politics, yet again, being usurped by those in power?”

The students, he says, “all firmly believe in the concept of one person, one vote. They believe each individual vote should carry just as much weight as any other vote. They object to having their votes effectively dismissed by those in power,” Phongsathorn says, referring to the participants of a candle-lighting protest against the FFP’s dissolution.

Phongsathorn believes that, if possible, students from different universities in Isaan should get together for political activism and protests. He believes that students from across Isaan should join forces for mutual support, and to be there when students in other universities are feeling hopeless.

As a student leader, Phongsathorn is focusing activities on three objectives. First, the resignation of the current government and paving the way for fresh elections. Second, the rewriting of the constitution with public participation. And third, that the prime minister should only receive a mandate from the votes of the people, with no input from the appointed senate.

Phongsathorn was pleased with the turnout of what was their largest protest to date on 27 February that drew over 1,000 people.

“We did not come out to protest on behalf of any one political party. This has been a long time coming, and now the time is right. At first I thought that maybe about 500 people would turn up, but instead 3,000 people came,” he recounts.

Sorawit Latham, a fourth-year student at Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science, is a member of the Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity Activist Group. He says that while the protest movement was initially sparked by the dissolution of the FFP, it has already moved on. The student protesters are now speaking out about structural issues of the political system, and are making demands for justice and constitutional reform.

The Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity group have four main objectives: for the leaders of the military coup to be tried for treason, rewriting the constitution, for the prime minister to immediately resign and make way for a caretaker government, and for fresh elections to occur.

Sorawit admits that for their protests to gain traction, they must still depend on the momentum generated by Bangkok-based universities. When interest wanes in the capital, so, too, does interest in the provinces. In any case, these student activist groups agree that they should be inter-university collaboration between them, he says.

“We still haven’t touched on many other issues with the government, such as the case of the national forest encroachment of Parina Kraikup [an MP from the governing Palang Pracharat Party], the power that the army wields, and so on. But when all is said and done, we want to rewrite the constitution,” Sorawit Latham says.

He views this spate of protests as a learning experience for a movement that can grow into something powerful enough to put real pressure on the government.

Brought out by injustice

According to well-known political activist Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, or Pai Dao Din, “it’s the injustice that brought them out.”

The law graduate also says that the lack of legitimacy of the previous election has persuaded many students to protest. They feel as if the votes they casted for FFP were discarded and the state apparatus has been used to enforce double standards.

“I witnessed flash mobs in two areas–in Khon Kaen University and in Chaiyaphum Rajabhat University. I noticed a lot of new faces,” the former student activist leader says. “That shows that they’re not putting up with it anymore, and they’re not going to stay [just] on Twitter either.”

“It’s the injustice that brought them out,” Pai Dao Din calls out at the #KKUHasHadEnough event on the grounds of Khon Kaen University on 26 February. Photo by Adithep Chanthet.

“Interestingly enough, it was the actions of those in power that brought all these students out without the need for any kind of incitement or persuasion,” Pai observes. “Of course, at their age, they’ll try and make it as entertaining as possible. They’ll be playing with hashtags and taunting the other universities, saying, ‘We’ve come out. When are you going to take your turn?’”

Wisalya Ngamna, a law student at Khon Kaen University, is a member of the Dao Din activist group that is involved in the protests. She hopes the political activism of the students can help drive progress in society.

“Our highest objective is to effect a rewriting of the constitution, which has been hijacked by the dictatorship,” Wisalya says. “Right now we’ve joined up students from six other universities. We’re going to drive this and organize activities together. I believe that during the next break we will have the chance to exchange ideas even more freely.”

The second #KKUHasHadEnough protest is planned to be held at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law on 14 March.

Education institutions and activism

Teerapol Anmai, a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University, observes that many students who voted for the first time felt frustrated with the controversial election last year.

“They felt, for a multitude of factors, that their votes had been effectively destroyed,” Teerapol says. “For example, supposedly independent agencies such as the Election Commission–which was actually appointed by the military junta–repeatedly disappointed them with its performance. Their frustration has been welling up.”

“Educators should be supporting the learning experiences of their students, not obstructing them,” Teerapol Anmai, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University. Photo by Adithep Chanthet.

As for the role that university educators have to play in all of this, Teerapon divides them into three categories: those who support the students, those who do nothing, and those who disagree.

“At this stage, you can’t just sit still and do nothing. If you’re going to obstruct them, then you’ll also have to accept the criticism of the students. Educators should be supporting the learning experiences of their students, not obstructing them,” Teerapon says.

As an academic who has followed the political situation closely, Teerapon notes that though public protests have been effectively muffled by the Public Assembly Act of 2015–passed into law during the military junta’s tenure–the law still allows protests and demonstrations to occur at educational institutions.

“It is written in the constitution that public assembly is a basic right,” Teerapon says. “Educational institutions should allow their students to demonstrate freely within their grounds.”

This story was first published in Thai on 12 March. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record. The author is a participant of the Isaan Journalism Network Project. 

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