KHON KAEN/UBON RATCHATHANI – University students across the Northeast are taking their online activism to public spaces in a growing wave of protests sparked by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) last Friday.
Dissatisfied by a court’s ban of the popular opposition party, students and activists organized public gatherings and vigils in Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham, Ubon Ratchathani, and Udon Thani. More events have been announced in Chaiyaphum, Sakon Nakhon, and Nakhon Phanom.
Anger first erupted online among supporters of the party after the ruling was made public on Friday afternoon. Hashtags like #RIPThailand and #PrathetKuMi [a reference to a popular anti-military junta song] were trending on Twitter.
By the evening, students at Maha Sarakham University held one of the first candlelight vigils drawing a small group of students.
“We believe that if students join hands and organize themselves effectively in something akin to unions, we all can amplify our power and stimulate action. We’ll give the government something to be frightened about,” Phongsatorn Tancharoen, a leader of a student group in Maha Sarakham, told The Isaan Record via telephone.
“The new generation just has to keep the momentum going, conquering fear, and converting anger into action,” Phongsatorn said.
On the same evening, about 50 students and activists in Ubon Ratchathani joined a candlelight vigil at the city shrine organized by former local FFP candidate Banthit Wilamat.
Thanatcha Phoplap, a 20-year-old university student, joined the event to express her dissatisfaction with the court’s ruling.
“The dissolution of Future Forward makes me feel like our judicial system is not living up to its name and I want to see change,” Thanatcha said. She added that she’d like to see the country’s youth take an interest in politics and come out in large numbers to protest.
Last Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve the Future Forward Party and banned its executives from politics for ten years. A loan of 191 million baht (about $6 million USD) from party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to the party was deemed illegal.
The Election Commission had asked the court to dissolve the party for violating a 2017 law governing political parties, which limits donations to 10 million baht per donor per year.
The anger over the dissolution of FFP was fueled on Tuesday after rumors emerged that nine party MPs would switch allegiances from the opposition to the government. In the afternoon, Bhumjaithai Party confirmed that it accepted all the MPs. The party is part of the governing coalition of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha.
Among the nine is first-time MP for Khon Kaen’s Constituency 1, Thitinan Saengnak, who was propelled to victory thanks to an avalanche of support from first-time voters, many of them students.
In a popular, closed university Facebook group, commentators vented their dissatisfaction with Thitinan’s decision calling him a “traitor.” One comment reads “ideology is meaningless to some people because they can’t take it to the bank. It’s pathetic.”
Yesterday afternoon, students and activists gathered at Ubon Ratchathani University in a flash mob protest. About 200 people held up protest signs and raised the three-finger salute that became a symbol of resistance after the military coup in 2014.
This evening, more than 1,000 students and employees of Khon Kaen University (KKU) as well as other members of the public gathered in another flash mob protest at Sithan Lake on KKU’s campus. It was one of the largest gatherings in the Northeast since the protests began last Friday.
“If the government tries to shut us down, we will use our strength in numbers against them,” a male employee of the university who asked to be unidentified, told The Isaan Record at the event.
“If the government uses cruelness against us, we will respond with our purity and fight with justice against them,” he said.
Former KKU student and prominent activist, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, better known as “Pai Dao Din,” who joined the event, said that the current protests are only a test run for a larger series of gatherings.
“These are not the big protests yet,” Jatupat said. “The government and General Prayuth don’t need to be scared just yet.”
Several student and civil society groups in the Northeast published statements condemning the dissolution to ban the popular opposition party that had garnered the third largest share of seats in parliament in the election last year.
A group of students from Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts published a statement in English and Thai on Facebook on Tuesday calling the ruling to dissolve FFP “shameless” and “unthinkable.”
The statement speaks of an “unhealthy politics of the bullies” that caused “irreversible damages to the already delicate democracy”.
The statement stops short of calling for mass protests but ends on a stance of defiance, saying the group will “do what it takes to defend democracy.”
“As members of a pro-democracy generation, millions of us will wait to cast our votes, and will vote and vote again until our votes are respected.”
Additional reporting by Hathairat Phaholtap and Yodsapon Kerdviboon.