Thailand's Free Youth movement defies regime with nightly mobilisations

October 23, 2020
The October 18 democracy mobilisation at Victory Monument, Bangkok. Photo: Peeradon Ariyanukooltorn

A week after the military-installed regime headed by former general Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an emergency decree (at 4am on October 15, while tens of thousands of demonstrators held an overnight protest outside his office) banning gatherings of more than five people, the Free Youth student-led democracy movement has staged mass defiance gatherings. These actions have taken place every night in multiple locations in the capital Bangkok and cities around the country.

The Free Youth movement has three main demands: 1) that the junta resign; 2) that a new democratic constitution be drafted; and 3) the monarchy be reformed, including the curtailing of royal powers and privileges, and the abolition of the lese-majeste laws that have been used to jail political dissidents.

The regime has since arrested several dozen youth “leaders” and other well-known dissidents and shifted some to remote regions under the control of the notoriously brutal Border Patrol Police, a paramilitary unit formed with the support of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1950s to combat insurgency and control the borders. However, courts have ordered that some of these detainees be bailed.

The self-described “leaderless” Free Youth movement has used social media to pull off huge demonstrations at short notice. Typically, the site of each day's actions would be broadcast on multiple social media platforms at about 3pm, and within an hour huge numbers of school and university students would start appearing at these sites. The actions dispersed by 10pm.

Riot police used water cannon and baton charged one of the early acts of mass defiance, but this proved only to win more public sympathy for the protesters and swelled the numbers of subsequent actions. The regime also mobilised public servants in compulsory pro-monarchy workplace rallies.

The largest democracy action so far was on October 21, when an estimated 200–300,000 people gathered at the Victory Monument in Bangkok and marched on Government House. This march was blocked on the way by a large fully-geared riot police contingent, which had erected a razor-wire topped barricade across the road.

As the march streamed past the riot police, the crowd chanted, “I here too!” a popular derisive taunt against Prayut whose nickname is “Too”. Activists explained that it means: “Fuck you Prayut!”

A tense standoff ensued, but eventually the sheer size of the march compelled the police to move aside and let the protesters through.

The marchers delivered a letter of ultimatum, giving Prayut three days to resign or they would return. This ultimatum was relayed to the crowd by popular protest leader Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon.

"Our fight isn't over as long as he doesn't resign. If, within three days, he doesn't resign, he will face the people again," she said. However, just a few hours after the protest peacefully dispersed, Patsaravalee was arrested.

Free Youth activists told Green Left that she was arrested without warrant and whisked away to the Region 1 Border Patrol Police bureau. An image of Patsaravalee smiling through the barred window in a lock up truck went viral on social media. "I'm not worried. This is the government's game," the media reported her saying.

Patsaravalee was released on bail later, after being brought before a court.

While Prayut claimed to be trying to “de-escalate” the situation and lifted the emergency decree on October 22 (which had been fully defied by the movement) and allowed a discussion of the movement's demands in the undemocratically stacked Congress next week, his regime has far from given up, exiled socialist and author Giles Ji Ungpakorn told Green Left.

“Prayut and his gang of military thugs are not about to go easily. They have spent the years since their coup in 2014 putting in place measures to maintain their power, including writing a constitution, appointing the senate, designing the National Strategy and fixing last year’s elections. They already have blood on their hand from the murder of pro-democracy Red Shirts ten years ago and the use of death squads against dissidents.”

In his assessment, the movement is “at a junction”.

“Organising flash mobs over and over again risks tiring out protesters and these actions are not enough to make the country ungovernable. Either they move forward to organise more militant and powerful action such as strikes, or the momentum will be lost.

“Given the level of public support for the protests it is important to seize the moment and try to build for workplace stoppages.

“Just making a call [for a general strike] will not work. Student and worker activists need to link up and visit workplaces.”

Ungpakorn noted that the major mobilisations in Rangsit and Chonbury, near the major Eastern Industrial Zone drew considerable numbers of factory workers. But this was a result of organisation by militants in trade union area groups.

“The worker militants have attended the protests in the centre of town. But there is no evidence of any students visiting workers yet.”

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