Thailand students the 'last group standing' in protesting army coup

Thai student activists Than Rittiphan, 22, (left) and Songtham Kaewpanpruek, 24, posing for photographs after an interview with Reuters in Bangkok on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Thai student activists Than Rittiphan, 22, (left) and Songtham Kaewpanpruek, 24, posing for photographs after an interview with Reuters in Bangkok on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thai student protesters billing themselves as the "last group standing" in seeking to end military rule said on Monday they would openly defy what one leader called a tyrannical regime nine months after the army seized power.

Members of the Thai Student Centre for Democracy (TSCD), who come from different political and socio-economic backgrounds, present a quandary for the junta, which has branded public protests illegal but wants to maintain its core support, including from Bangkok's middle class and business elite.

Some of the students support the "red shirt" grassroots movement of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but others sympathise with the establishment that makes up the bulk of the junta's support.

A resurgence of public protests could prove destabilising for the military rulers, already struggling with economic mismanagement. The army says it wants to negotiate with the students, but at the weekend detained several for holding a public meeting.

"A sure way the junta can mess up is if it slips up on the economy, which impacts the people directly," Jurin Laksanawisit, a member of the conservative Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political party, told Reuters.

TSCD members say they are prepared to go to jail to see Southeast Asia's second-largest economy return to democratic rule.

"We are the last group standing," group member Than Rittiphan, 22, told Reuters.

Thailand has been polarised for over a decade. On the one side is ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his powerful political family who courted rural voters by introducing cash subsidies and free healthcare. On the other are the traditional Bangkok elite threatened by his meteoric rise.

The May coup ended months of street protests aimed at bringing down Thaksin's sister, Yingluck. She was removed from office days before the power grab after a court found her guilty of abuse of power.

Critics of the coup, including the pro-Yingluck "red shirt" leaders, have largely gone to ground. But despite strict army surveillance, more than 60 students have been at the forefront of every public protest since the coup.

All were broken up by authorities and dozens of students detained and later released.

The students say growing disgruntlement over the economy means Thailand is ripe for a new wave of protest. The country, highly reliant on tourism, is struggling to regain traction following the coup. It saw 0.7 per cent growth in 2014, the weakest since devastating floods in 2011.

"People are starting to get sick of this tyrannical regime, especially how they manage the economy," Than told Reuters.

Than, who dropped out of university, said the students have "hundreds" of supporters but that many are afraid to speak out.

The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, said it wants to negotiate with the students.

"We will use negotiation, but if they persist with their activities we will have to hand them over to police," junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree told Reuters.

On Saturday, dozens of student activists held a rare demonstration in Bangkok and set up mock voting tables - a protest against the military government which has pushed back an election planned for this year to 2016.

Four activists, including Siriwit Serithiwat, a student at Bangkok's Thammasat University, were detained.

Siriwit was accused of violating martial law, which prohibits public gatherings of more than five people, and of violating the conditions of a document he was forced to sign last year promising not to participate in political activities.

He was released from nearly 12 hours in police custody and had to pay bail of 40,000 baht (S$1,665). He is expected to face trial in a military court.

Student Songtham Kaewpanpruek likened the current wave of activism to a 1973 uprising and 1976 army crackdown on a left-wing student protest amid lynchings, beatings and shootings. Officially, at least 46 protesters died, pulling the country back to years of military rule.

Songtham's aunt and uncle were student activists at Thammasat University, a hotbed of political activity in the 1970s.

"We're taking the baton from the generation of '76," said Songtham, who said he had not slept at home in weeks to avoid the army knowing his whereabouts.

"There are some teachers supporting us but because of martial law, many aren't able to reveal their identity."