The pure force of student activism

The pure force of student activism
Increased media attention in favour of the young New Democracy Movement group leads many to question their unfair treatment
WRITER: ARIANE KUPFERMAN-SUTTHAVONG

'Shoot them, just shoot them!" It didn't take long for such calls to be heard after the police encircled the group of students, huddled in front of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

The night was May 22 and the event — a peaceful gathering to mark the coup's one year anniversary — ended in a confused debacle as 38 students were arrested and held overnight at Pathumwan Police Station. In Khon Kaen, plain-clothed officers rounded up seven more, releasing them the following day as well.

Following the protest, their 12-day incarceration and last week's release, the activist students quickly became a talking point. Among them, one of the most recognisable faces is that of Rangsiman Rome, a member of the New Democracy Movement whose face and mop of hair are now familiar to the public, especially when he uploaded an 80-second video of himself detailing the physical assault his friends suffered. Whether he is one of the heroes — as many claim — or a pawn, as others accuse, Rangsiman and the members of the movement have become a subject of news headlines in the past two weeks, evoking the memory of the student movements in the 1970s.

Rangsiman and his group, who are now sporting shaved heads, have become known as "the 14 students", comprising of young people from various universities in Bangkok and including the Dao Din activists from Khon Kaen. Rangsiman, a Thammasat law student, said he had his personal information, telephone number, address and house registration book circulated online, while government officials layered accusations against the students. The allegations increased increased rapidly, from sparking unrest to being backed by politicians and international organisations. Rumours of lèse-majesté were also floated, as just a hint will suffice to set the hounds barking.

"Once more, people pointing to the problem are viewed as being the problem themselves," Rangsiman said a few days after his release from Bangkok Remand Prison.

The Thai-American said he doesn't expect everyone to agree with the movement. Having taken part in sandwich-eating and anti-coup rallies last year, he was prepared to come under fire, especially when the military government still enjoys support from most Bangkokians. Rangsiman added that he grew up in a family that supported the anti-Shinawatra People's Democratic Reform Council and the 2014 coup. Even after being manhandled and arrested by police officers on the night of May 22, the student was berated for creating unrest and exposing himself to risks.

Accusations dumped on the students are no different from character assassinations and attacks suffered by many activists over the decades. But few get to become a cause célèbre like the 14 New Democracy Movement activists facing criminal charges in military court.

However, Rangsiman believes the criticism he has suffered so far is nothing short from hate speech. Echoing the student's thoughts is Thammasat University dean of Sociology Anusorn Unno. The anthropologist drew a parallel with the 1973 student student uprising, when the government accused activists of being impregnated with communist ideology.

"Unsanctioned regimes took an active part in making up these claims, in order to build legitimacy to resort to violent means," he argued. Fears of an eventual crackdown may affect the New Democracy Movement's activities as well, Rangsiman added. Other pro-democracy advocates and students may be deterred from joining their movement out of safety concerns.

In a way, the NCPO is working to dissuade Thai citizens from speaking out about politics, he said.

He also deems chilling the fact many don't seem to use their logic to screen information they receive. On the contrary, it appears that some are ready to believe anything they're handed without much discernment, he added.

Attributing it to Thailand's people-worshipping culture, he argued that many won't reason with the New Democracy Movement, choosing to fight it off instead with slanderous claims rather than sensible arguments.

A part of Thai society is more interested in speakers — who they are, their skin colour, origins and backgrounds — rather than the ideas they convey, he said.

The "good people", those whose public image is unstained, will be listened to. But there will be no further study of their words, the pro-democracy activist added with regret.

As support for the students grew following the arrest of 14 Dao Din and Thammasat activists, officials cautiously backtracked, resorting to calling the students a "pure force" instead.

"Students are supposedly pure, armed with good intentions," Rangsiman noted, arguing that in a society so focused on appearances and social classes, university students represent an elitist caste of their own.

In tainting the image of the activists, social media users dug out Dao Din members' alleged low grades, claiming they were poor students or imposters. Targeting the community rights advocates only aimed to send a message that Dao Din should focus on their classes rather than carrying out social and political activities.

Rangsiman believes however that their social standing as students will also serve as a protective armour against defamatory claims. "If some people manage to vilify us, there will be many others ready to stop them, in order to uphold this idea of students as a pure force," he said.

The activist further argued that the smear campaign against students has already began to suffer a backlash. Drawing from his personal experience and surrounding environment, he said the injustice repeatedly committed against himself and his friends helped draw support for the students.

Thais who were supportive of the military coup or more neutrally-positioned figures have spoken out against the arrest and detention of the 14 activists. The slanderous drive and hate speech opened a new channel for those people to start sympathising with them.

But as accusations against activists grew louder and hit lower, many around him began questioning why they were subject to such persecution, he said.

He believes that the increased media attention in favour of the students has raised people's awareness regarding their cause. Resulting in their arrest and detention, the picture has become clearer for many and the NCPO's intent on spinning the news to vilify further emphasised the unfair treatment they received. The government's words stopped having the same impact as in the past months, he said.

In a way, he added, the 14 students' prosecution in military court is only an example of the violations the regime has carried out.

"I believe we will reach a tipping point when Thais won't take it anymore. They will start looking at the problem and speak out," Rangsiman said with a firm, positive resolution.

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