Facing jail for sedition, Thai student protesters refuse to back down
BANGKOK, Thailand – Bas strums a guitar in a high-rise flat in a working-class Bangkok neighborhood, his thoughts flitting between the new term at university and the prospect of seven years in jail.
The 22-year-old's bedroom looks like any other undergraduate's – a picture of his girlfriend hangs on one wall, a poster of a rock star from the American band Blink-182 on another.
But while most of his peers fret over exams and future jobs, Bas braces for prison – one of 14 students charged with sedition over a peaceful June rally for democracy in junta-ruled Thailand.
Although they may face trial in a military court, Bas and his group are refusing to flinch.
"I have no choice. I have to do this. If it's my fate, it's my fate," Bas said of the risks he faces with further action.
Despite being under close military surveillance, the 14 students – among more than 100 activists, mostly university students in the capital and northeast, who are members of the New Democracy Movement (NDM) – have started to reconvene.
Since seizing power in May 2014, Thailand's generals have largely succeeded in neutering dissent, banning criticism by outlawing political gatherings and censoring the media.
While the "Red Shirt" supporters of the toppled elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra have stayed off the streets, small yet determined rallies by anti-coup students have confounded the regime.
Their symbolic flash mobs shortly after the coup, which triggered arrests but no charges, have grown into bolder protests, such as June's anti-coup speeches and songs at Bangkok's Democracy Monument.
The protest saw the group of 14 detained for nearly two weeks earlier this summer after they refused bail. The sedition charge has been seen as a signal the junta remains intolerant of criticism – especially from campuses with a long history of incubating powerful opposition movements.
Both the United Nations and European Union have called for the case to be dropped. While the military court has not yet ruled on whether to try the 14, in August a board member of Amnesty International Thailand was also charged with sedition for supporting them.
For now the group are resolved to expand, returning from jail as heroes to Bangkok's Thammasat University, a proudly liberal bastion.
"We have to keep fighting," law graduate Rangsiman Rome said at a campus where a 1973 uprising ended in bloodshed and the collapse of the then-military regime.
Undeterred by charges he doesn't accept – the group refused bail in protest at being tried by a martial court – Rome says he is determined to forge a "new politics".
"We need more space for people who want neither Reds nor Yellows," the bespectacled 23-year-old told Agence France-Presse, referring to the traditional political camps splitting the kingdom.
Thailand's decade of political conflict loosely pits the rural and urban working class "Red Shirt" backers of the Shinawatra family against a pro-establishment "Yellow" middle-class and elite – buttressed by parts of the judiciary and military.
After last year's coup, flash mobs sprang up with students flicking the three-finger salute of resistance from "The Hunger Games" films or giving public readings of George Orwell's anti-authoritarian novel "1984".
Despite the movement growing, and spawning the NDM, it remains minuscule when compared to the street protests that have pockmarked Thailand in recent years.
'Pure' but leaderless
Other demonstrations are also creeping back as patience frays with junta rule.
Some are against single issues such as the location of power plants or displacement from land.
But political opposition has mostly been restricted to measured swipes on social media or comments from anti-coup exiles, as scores of civilians have been tried in military courts since the coup.
August's unclaimed deadly bomb attack on a Bangkok shrine has also raised fears the junta will tighten its security response to dissent.
The military's heavy-handed response to the NDM betrays a fear outweighing their numbers.
Ahead of their arrest senior junta figures stepped up rhetoric against the group, portraying them as political naifs manipulated by civilian politicians – and even foreign forces.
But the NDM maintain they are not bound by party politics.
Eugenie Merieau, a political science lecturer at Thammasat, says the movement's strength comes from being "pure" and free of the much-maligned politicians.
Yet their "fight for ideas" without a charismatic leader was also a weakness, she added, in a country where personality politics looms large.
Last year's coup ended months of violent protests against Yingluck's administration, with the army saying it was forced to restore order before new elections can take place.
But opponents read it as the latest attempt to claw back power for an elite who have lost every election since 2001.
The ensuing tussle for power has left Thailand criss-crossed by division.
While Bas can count on the support of his mother, who survived the deadly 1973 military crackdown on student protests, Rome's is a Yellow Shirt who supports the junta.
Neither she nor his American father came to visit him in prison.
Cutting through this partisanship is the "main obstacle" the movement faces, says Rome. But he is confident Thais will eventually come to demand an alternative to military rule.
"This (the NDM) can be the space for them to express their political views," he says. – Preeti Jha, AFP / Rappler.com