Unfazed by detention, Thai anti-coup students plot next move

Unfazed by detention, Thai anti-coup students plot next move
PHOTO: The Nation/ANN

Twenty-year-old Panupong Sritananuwat, as he takes a cigarette break from a meeting on what to do against the regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, looks like any other university student - except for his not-so-fashionable shaved head, which was forced on him in prison, and what's on his mind.

Panupong or "Nice", a sophomore at Khon Kaen University's Law Faculty, is one of the 14 anti-coup students who were released on Wednesday from Bangkok Remand Prison after spending 12 days behind bars. They were flung in prison for violating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s ban on political gatherings and allegedly committing sedition by publicly calling for the ouster of the junta. Undeterred, the group is now busy planning its next move.

"I haven't changed and I'm reminded that we still have no liberty," the bespectacled young man said. "We will still fight for democracy. Inside prison, we strengthened our hearts and decided not to give up."

Panupong added that he and the others - mostly university students if not recent graduates - were treated well by the prison warden and asked this interviewer to convey his sincere thanks. However, he said, they were not given access to news - be it print or broadcast - about their opposition to the regime while they were behind bars. The imprisonment of the 14 young activists has attracted concern from the United Nations, the European Union and international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Now, a day after he and his peers - all members of New Democracy Movement (NDM) - were released Panupong wonders why they still need to be closely followed by security officers, who watch their every move. The 14 still face a possible prison term of seven years.

"We are not criminals. They don't really need to follow us like this," he said, sitting at an undisclosed location. "I feel very unsafe indeed."

The light-framed Panupong is still fearless though, saying their struggle is worth it. Their public challenge to the NCPO and eventual imprisonment has seen a revival of anti-coup protests over the past two weeks on a scale not experienced since the first few weeks after the 2014 coup. This time more than 200 people gathered to rally for the release of the 14 young activists and denounced the NCPO despite the risk of prosecution. This response, he said, was "beyond expectation" and also thanked those beyond the Kingdom for their support as well.

"This has shaken Prayut to the point where he has to speak about us 14 students. I would like to tell our supporters that everybody should continue the struggle, even though the means might be different," Panupong said.

The young student, who was first a member of the Dao Din group before it joined Bangkok-based students to form NDM, quickly ruled out the option of expressing themselves through officially sanctioned channels as suggested by Justice Minister General Paiboon Kumchaya, saying it was "unacceptable".

He said he and his group want to communicate with the rest of society, not just the government. "What he [Prayut]'s afraid of most is a people's uprising," he added.

While in prison, Panupong also had a chance to speak to other inmates and learned how being poor and underprivileged increased the chance of ending up in prison.

Panupong's father came down from Surin province to visit him, though his mother sent a message asking him to return home for a break. Panupong said his parents have learned to respect his decision and have realised that their son is an activist now.

His new term in university is also starting next month.

"I don't know when I will be heading home, because it's still unclear what we are going to do next," he said, before he excused himself and joined the meeting.

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