Why you should care
Because it’s a new era of student protests the world over.
“Hi,” comes the text message from Rangsiman Rome. “If police don’t arrest me, I can talk with you tonight.”
This is Thailand, where the 24-year-old law student increasingly needs to make plans by working around the threat of arrest. Rome has been jostling against the military junta government online and on the streets for two years now, arguing for a return to elected government, while railing against a crackdown on dissent. This year, Rome expects to face his hardest test yet: ensuring the general election takes place as promised.
In 2014 the “Land of Smiles” experienced its 12th coup d’état in a little over 80 years. The ruling junta that took over talked of a quick transition to democratic elections but instead delivered two and a half years of delays and power grabs. After passing a military-backed constitution in a referendum last year — which guaranteed a military presence in the legislative branch — Rome and the anti-junta network he helped cofound, New Democracy Movement, assessed their defeat and prepared to fight for the general elections. To succeed this year, he says they will have to expand their national outreach, moving beyond big cities like Bangkok to the more rural provinces to spread their pro-democracy message.
Already Rome’s NDM is considered the most effective student dissident group in the country, and, though it has no official hierarchy, it follows Rome’s lead on many topics. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, a Thai expert on civil disobedience and professor at Thammasat University, chalks this up to Rome’s skill as a speaker. “In a way, the NDM is very fragmented,” she says, but the charisma of someone like Rome can cohere the raw energy of the group. Beyond personality, the NDM must speak about both democracy and economic security, she says, which can unite the rural population, student movements and the urban middle class — the latter often critical of student protesters.
“There is not this mass resentment against an authoritarian regime.”
Over the past several years, even as Amnesty International reports torture, arbitrary imprisonment and increasing crackdowns on free speech (which the government seems to monitor everywhere, from Facebook to graffiti walls), the call for democracy has been falling on deaf ears, Sombatpoonsiri says. The narrative of “political security” simply reigns too strong, particularly in the wake of the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last fall; Adulyadej was widely seen as one of the few stabilizing figures in Thai politics. “There is not this mass resentment against an authoritarian regime,” she says.
There is also a belief that anyone outraged at a perceived campaign of oppression may simply lack a true understanding of the Thai political context. “Thailand has its own laws to follow,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters after Rome and his colleagues’ initial arrest in 2015, which prompted international outrage. “I’ve not abused my power, nor have I violated anyone’s rights,” he said, “except for [the rights of] those who refused to play by the rules.”
Rome, for his part, “never wanted to live as an activist.” Growing up in the southern Thai island of Phuket — now known as a vacation paradise for Westerners — Rome hoped to become a university teacher, lecturing on politics and history. Raised in an environment not unlike today’s, marked by regular back-and-forth political struggles, Rome’s first taste of politics came through daily conversations with his American father and Thai mother. The history, in brief: In the years since a coup removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, regular battles have been waged between the so-called “red-shirts,” loyal to the deposed prime minister and his populist surrogates, and “yellow shirts,” a more middle-class group who place a premium on stability and the monarchy. The constant conflict has resulted in an entrenched dichotomy of political protest, with no third option seemingly possible.
After arriving at Thammasat University, Rome went from detached observer to closer witness of his country’s pattern of alternating elections and coups. “It’s my university that brought me to the fight,” says Rome. Thailand has a long history of student activism and dissent; Rome’s own university was founded by Pridi Banomyong, a lawyer and civil servant who spearheaded the protests that resulted in the country’s shift from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932. Walking along the Chao Phraya river at Thammasat’s central Bangkok campus, one stands close to the bloody history of student protest as well: On October 6, 1976, in what is now known as the Thammasat University Massacre, a group of soldiers and far-right paramilitaries gunned down student protesters who were calling for a return to constitutional government following a coup; 46 died.
For Rick Rhian, a member of the NDM who began his activism in university alongside Rome, it’s an inspiring heritage. Rhian noticed Rome’s talents in meetings and on the streets. “He’s a good speaker and can calm down protesters. He can make them keep discipline,” Rick says of Rome. And he fits the profile of an activist who puts himself on the line: A year after the coup, Rome and 13 friends were arrested for breaking a ban on public gatherings. He and other dissidents have since been detained and jailed multiple times. Today, Rome’s friend Pai Daodin is sitting out his exams in prison for the crime of insulting the monarchy in a post on Facebook.
These days, Rome is focused less on marches and street chants and more on tightening the NDM’s network, all while providing a platform for voices rarely heard: organizing and occasionally speaking in pro-democracy forums around the country in universities and public halls, and far from a megaphone. But he promises he’ll return to the barricades if he must, and for now that’s dependent on delivery of the promised upcoming elections.