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Thai students vow to continue democracy struggle, despite arrests

After days of protests against the ruling military junta, police in Thailand arrested 14 students on June 26 for violating the ban on public gatherings.

The students had staged multiple protests in Bangkok this week against the junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, as well as the charges brought upon students for staging a protest on May 22 — the one-year anniversary of the junta’s seizure of power from former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The junta, led by now-Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, overthrew Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, in a bloodless coup last year after months of violent protests against her elected-but-corrupt regime. Military leaders insisted that the coup’s aim was to help restore democracy, but that promise has yet to come to fruition. Instead, the military junta has stifled free speech and cracked down on all forms of dissent.

“The prosecution of students for peaceful protests shows that the military junta has no intention of easing its oppressive rule,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on the May 22 protest. “Gagging public protests makes a mockery of the junta’s self-proclaimed commitment to return to democracy.”

On May 22, Thai police arrested more than 40 protesters in provinces throughout the country in the largest crackdown on dissent since the junta took power last year. Human Rights Watch reported that Thai soldiers and police attacked student protesters without provocation during a peaceful rally at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center. Thai authorities later denied these claims. Eleven students were then charged with violating the laws against public criticism of the junta and public gatherings.

On June 24, the 83rd anniversary of the overthrow of Thailand’s former absolute monarchy, dozens of students rallied outside of the Pathumwan police station in Bangkok for 10 hours — the longest rally since the May 22 protest — and even filed a complaint against the police for their repression and brutality. Seven of the students in attendance, known by names such as the “Magnificent Seven” and the “Dao Din” group, were charged for the May 22 protest, but have refused to meet with police to acknowledge their charges. After missing the June 19 deadline to report to the police, the students went into hiding and surprised people by showing up to the protest on Wednesday outside of the police station.

“I think there are others who may want to come out [to oppose the National Council for Peace and Order] but don’t dare to,” Suphachai Phukrongpoly, one of the seven students, told Thailand’s The Nation shortly after the deadline passed. “We want to show them that we can fight and create political space that’s beyond the red and yellow [political] divides.”

The seven students managed to escape arrest on Wednesday except for one student, Natchacha Kongudom, who was arrested in the morning while she was in the hospital. Another one of the seven students, Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, told the Bangkok Post that they would continue to protest the coup whether they were arrested or not.

On June 25, in yet another illegal protest, hundreds of students gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, made speeches, unfurled a banner reading “No Coup,” and wrapped the monument with a black banner saying “Down with dictatorship, long live democracy.” Yet again, no one was arrested at this protest, and by that time, the “Dao Din” students had formed a new group with Bangkok activists called the “Neo Democracy Movement.”

The next day, however, police surrounded a house where the students had been hiding out and 14 students from the new group were arrested that afternoon. They all face up to six months in prison and a fine of 10,000 baht (or $300).

“We’ll accept arrest, not because we accept their law, but because we can’t resist the NCPO, which has guns, weapons, force and men,” Rangsiman Rome told The Nation not long before his arrest. “They can deprive us of our freedom. They can cage our bodies. But our freedom-cherishing minds will remain free.”