Where do activists go from here?
SOCIAL MEDIA could be a double-edged sword for pro-democracy activists. On one hand, their messages can spread like wildfire and, on the other, people are less likely to attend their gatherings.
Their clock is ticking on this year’s election and also for the ruling junta’s fourth anniversary in May, when they plan to hold protests against the lingering power. Activists who attended assemblies in January and February to urge an election this year, face charges ranging from allegedly breaking the junta’s ban of political gathering to sedition. With the need to quickly create an impact, against time constraints and legal threats, activists are under mounting pressure.
“I wouldn’t expect roads full of protesters like what we used to see,” said Sirawith Seritiwat, who leads a Start Up People group. “But it doesn’t mean that we can’t be powerful.” Sirawith said that seeing hundreds of people attending assemblies is “satisfying”, given the risks posed by current political circumstances, and it would also be enough to put some pressure on the junta. Last Tuesday, PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha again promised an election, this time by next February. While the promise did not meet their demand for the election to be held this year, Sirawith, said Prayut’s vow was prompted by activist movements. The Start Up People, with focus on a people-level symbolic movement, made their debut last December when they filed a petition to the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly on a motion of no confidence in the junta government. Sirawith rose to fame gradually through the anti-junta movement along with Rangsiman Rome, who is now leading the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG). “The Internet world is critical indeed,” Rangsiman said. “It may be influential but still, not to the extent that it can throw the National Council for Peace and Order out.” More movements have to be generated in both the physical and cyber worlds to convey the groups’ emphasis on an early election, especially for youngsters who have yet to cast their vote during the junta government. While an online platform is ideal to send messages and raise awareness for the younger generation, it does not provide great coverage for other audiences, particularly those in rural areas, he said. Rangsiman’s strategy is to focus on simple, low-budget activities with concise and impactful messages.
The DRG’s key three messages are: this year’s election, the end of the NCPO and the return of democracy. While prosecution threats are looming, both activists say they do not fear the outcome. “Fearing everything will make us do nothing,” said the DRG’s Chonticha Jaengrew. “The more prosecution they try to pose against us, the more enlightened the public will feel.” Chonticha, who mostly advises police of activists’ use of public areas beforehand, said that the pressure often comes from the military. “Most of the time, we found that the military people, not the police, make a final decision whether to allow or stop each of our activities,” she said. Permission is often uncertain. Sometimes they are allowed and sometimes threats are made against them or the owners of the location where they meet, such as the restaurants. “We found officers sometimes visited them to ‘ask for cooperation’ not to allow us to organise the event,” she said. “Ultimately, we don’t refuse to cooperate with the authorities. But our essence is that we won’t allow them to infringe our rights and freedoms,” she said. “We stay peaceful and the most they should do is provide facilitation.”