Students at universities across Thailand during the past week have staged on-campus protests on a scale not seen in decades to vent their anger at a court order disbanding a top opposition party, and to demand that democracy be truly restored after years of junta rule.
Meanwhile amid a parliamentary debate over whether lawmakers should vote to censure his government, Prime Minister and former junta chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha gave the pro-democracy students a warning Thursday, saying they risked being prosecuted over their flash demonstrations.
“[I]’m concerned about the children, who are the nation’s future,” Prayuth told reporters.
Prayuth, who took power in 2014 after a military coup that he led as army chief, and which followed a series of tumultuous street protests, reminded students to respect the law to avoid arrest. Similar protests were held four years earlier.
“The laws are sacred. I’m not threatening you, but protesters of all sides in 2010 and 2014 were prosecuted,” Prayuth said.
During the debate on the floor of parliament, Prayuth said he was tracking the student demonstrations, claiming they did not compare with mass protests in 1973 and 1976 that ended in massacres.
On Thursday, students at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok joined thousands of others who have been protesting at campuses in the Thai capital and other cities since Feb. 21, when the Constitutional Court ordered the Future Forward Party (FFP) broken up and its top leaders banned from politics for 10 years.
The party that is popular with young Thais was ordered broken up less than a year after it finished third in a general election touted as marking the end of junta rule.
“After the 2019 election, instead of having a new future, a good future, we have the old future, plus 250 people (senators) we have not voted for,” a student leader, who asked to be identified as “Boy” over fear of reprisal, told BenarNews.
“We actually feel hopeless and disappointed with this country.”
The president of the Federation of Pattani Students and Youths (PerMAS) in Thailand’s Deep South was among the students who demonstrated at the Ramkhamhaeng campus on Thursday.
“Despite the election, we don’t feel it is a democracy. Laws have been drafted that deviate from the will of the people in an attempt to maintain power and restrict civil liberties,” Zukriffee Lateh told BenarNews.
“It is necessary for us to come out and call for democracy to change this country,” he said. “People must be able to determine their own political will.”
Officials did not release details of the number of people arrested since last week’s announcement to disband the FFP, which is led by auto-parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, nor about the charges they could face.
Thailand’s strict public gathering law does not allow more than 10 people to congregate at any one time. However, these laws do not apply to gatherings on campuses.
From parliament, Prayuth delivered a message to the student protesters.
“To correct the understandings of brothers and sisters at home, students and teachers, I’d like to say I understand your intention,” Prayuth said, adding that police were trying to avoid consequences similar to the protests back in the 1970s.
Police turned on protesters on campus, killing more than 75 students in 1973, and 46 officially or more than 100 unofficially in 1976.
“The incidents of 1973 and 1976 were different. Today, I’m not creating such conditions,” Prayuth said.
“I’m worried that the students might be naive … after being fed one side of the story,” he said. “May students who rally listen to the information the government has aired before choosing what you want to believe.”
In 2010, leaders of street protests who supported former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat who rallied to oust then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva were arrested. The protests resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
Nine self-proclaimed royalist leaders were sentenced to four years after being convicted of treason following 2014 protests while 25 people were killed, according to official figures.
Natjasak Phuthachakrawan, who attended the Ramkhamhaeng rally, was not swayed by the student speakers, saying their efforts could lead to violence.
“Do you know what democracy is,” he told BenarNews, adding he was concerned there could be a repeat of the Oct. 14, 1973 violence. “I know how that was.”
High school students have joined the protests as well.
A group from the all-girls Satriwithaya School in Bangkok displayed pro-democracy posters as they rallied at the Democracy Monument across the street from their school on Wednesday, the Bangkok Post reported.
“We came today not on behalf of the school but as members of a new generation who don’t want the monument to be just a place where vehicles make a U-turn,” one said.