A July issue of “The Economist” featured a piece highlighting the fight of Liu Xiaobo against the tyrannical regime of the People’s Republic of China. Liu was a commendable figure whose primary goal was to transform China into a liberal and prosperous democracy. His fight ended tragically: He lay dying in a Chinese hospital room without access to Western medicine or his family. I would like to say that his death sparked a happy beginning for the dream of Chinese democracy, but the world does not work that way. Following Liu’s funeral, the Chinese government suppressed any discussion of Liu’s work, his death, or even the eulogies from his relatives. Liu’s death can be seen as an ostensible demonstration that hope for democratic prosperity in Asia is still dim.
However, the reality may not be as hopeless as it initially appears. A person may die, but the ideas they promote do not need to die with them. In many parts of the world, particularly Thailand—my home country—a fight still rages on between tyranny and democracy. Interestingly, the fight in Thailand is being waged between the repressive regime and student activists, people like you and me. Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Joshua Wong are students who believe in the principles of self-determination, liberty, and democracy, and believe they are fighting on behalf of their whole generation. They, among many others, are fighting for a home that no one will feel afraid to live in. In light of their courage, I want to help journalistically illustrate the importance of student activism using the example of the fight for democracy in Thailand.
While in the United States, student activism is often derided as pointless and irritating, in the countries where suppression of opinions dominate, students are seen to play a pivotal role in igniting the popular anger. It is an observation shared by many that the young are always restless in their beliefs. Whether due to self-interest or ambition or aspirations of grandeur, the student population tends to have the undying attitude in challenging what seems problematic. In many countries where democracy exists only as a pipe dream, the young seem to be the least jaded with the possibility for change. We often see student and younger crowds go out on the street with passion and pride, protesting for a better future. We can see this across the globe: the Russian anti-corruption movement launched by Aleksei Navalny, the protest for liberal democracy in Hungary led by Andras Fekete-Gyor of the liberal Momentum Party, and the famed “Umbrella Movement” led by Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong.
While Thailand does not receive much coverage in the international media, Thai activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is also an example of youth-driven democratic movements. Chotiphatphaisal started out as an activist for the reformation of Thailand’s derelict education system in 2012, and he rapidly became the most infamous student critic of the civil society and anti-democratic regime. He voiced his anti-dictatorship opinions on social media when everyone was too scared to do so, attracting public condemnation from the regime supporters. His activism during the 2014 and 2015 coup d’état and subsequent political crisis earned him an unwarranted detention and the ire of the reigning junta. Socially, he became both a symbol of many activists and intellectuals, espousing democratic ideas and providing a reality check on the increasingly undemocratic and illiberal Thailand. His position as a librarian for the Santi Pracha Dhamma Library, a nascent den for Democratic activists and scholars, ensures the cultivation of intellectual works and liberal education in the face of mass censorship. Interestingly, when he was elected the President of the Student Council in Chulalongkorn, one of the most prestigious universities in Thailand, he received a direct public warning from the regime. Most importantly, in an environment without much freedom of expression, Chotiphatphaisal stands as a crucial standard-bearer for the dream of democracy in Thailand.
The most important trait that makes all of these democratic activists so resilient is faith. Unfortunately, Joshua has been sentenced to jail and Netiwit has been forced by the University to step down from his position on the student council board. While these individuals are facing significant obstacles in their fight against the all-powerful tide of repressive politics, their continued strength in the face of oppression represents the power of their ideas and faith. These people are not fighting for global recognition or individual success, but for the good of students and Thailand as a whole. Their dedication and selflessness have rightfully earned them lasting support from peers around the world. For Wesleyan students who believe in a cause of their own, this serves as an important lesson about maintaining confidence in students as activists. We must fight for what we believe in because, for many, we are all they have.
Bright Palakarn can be reached at email@example.com.