Thammasat University’s historical Tha Phrachan campus has once again been chosen as the venue for a large student-led protest, setting the stage for renewed political confrontation.
The United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration Group, as the student movement behind the ongoing anti-government protests calls itself, is going ahead with its rally on the campus on September 19 despite failing to secure permission from the university administration. Students are even threatening to break into the campus if they have to.
The group’s leaders, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, said protesters will camp overnight on the campus and may even take over Sanam Luang – a field across the street used for Royal ceremonies – if the university’s football pitches are not big enough to accommodate all of them. They plan to march to Government House the following morning.
Authorities have said that anti-riot police will be deployed at Thammasat, Sanam Luang and Government House to prepare for what is expected to be the largest protest so far against this government.
Bangkok police have warned protesters against trespassing on Sanam Luang, as the grounds – used as a rally site many times in the past – were registered as an archaeological site in 2012 and their unapproved use is deemed illegal.
Warnings of possible violence and rumours of another military coup are swirling, though many observers say they do not see either happening.
Hotbed of student activism
However, previous bloody clashes at the campus offer some reason for concern.
In the 1970s, Thammasat gave birth to a protest movement that culminated in the famous October 14, 1973 uprising, which led to the ouster of a dictatorship led by the so-called Three Tyrants. Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, his son Colonel Narong, and Narong’s father-in-law General Praphas Charusathien were forced to flee the country following their downfall.
The ouster of their regime had people believing that democracy was finally taking hold in Thailand. However, three years later, on October 6, 1976, the campus witnessed the ugliest scene in Thai political history.
Leftist students at the campus protesting the return of Thanom were surrounded by armed security forces, who accused them of being communists out to depose the monarchy. The unarmed protesters were shot, beaten, raped and murdered by officials and rightist vigilantes who managed to break into the campus. Some were also lynched at Sanam Luang nearby.
The chaos was then used to justify a military coup later that day, which overthrew the democratically-elected Seni Pramoj government.
Official figures put the death toll at 46, with 167 wounded and more than 3,000 arrested. However, survivors put the death toll closer to 100.
Clash of the alumni
Ahead of Saturday’s protest, supporters and opponents – mostly Thammasat alumni – have engaged in separate shows of force.
Supporters led by former rector Charnvit Kasetsiri and ex-dean of law Panat Tasneeyanond, issued an open letter on September 14 calling on the university to review its decision to ban the protest. The letter was signed by 190 fellow alumni.
Painter and writer Suchart Sawadsri, another Thammasat old boy, on Tuesday submitted another petition for the university’s rector, Gasinee Witoonchart, to reconsider the ban. His appeal was signed by 1,964 supporters.
However, the same day saw former senator Kaewsan Atibodhi, also a former rector of the university, submit a list of 2,966 alumni asking for the university to stand firm in its decision to bar the protesters from its premises.
The university last week announced it was prohibiting the rally because organizers had yet to comply with its guidelines on holding political activities on campus.
The guidelines were issued after protesters launched a controversial 10-point manifesto on monarchy reform at their August 10 rally in Thammasat’s Rangsit campus.
Thammasat administrators immediately came under fire from royalists who saw the manifesto as an insult to Thailand’s revered monarchy.
Protest leaders Parit and Panusaya remained unfazed and reiterated their calls for reforms to curb the monarchy’s power. They insist the topic will be raised again at Saturday’s rally.
In addition to being a symbol of student activism, the campus has been chosen as the protest venue because educational institutions are exempt from the Public Assembly Act, in force since 2015. This means organisers do not need to seek permission from police to hold protests on campus.
However, the protesters risk violating the law if they move their rally to Sanam Luang or Government House. The law states: “No public assembly shall be held within the National Assembly, Government House and Courts of Justice.”
Siamese Revolution’s legacy
Thailand’s second-oldest university, Thammasat was established on June 27, 1934 as an open institute of higher education for law and politics.
Thammasat was founded just two years after the June 1932 Siamese Revolution, which abolished absolute monarchy.
It was set up according to the principles of the revolutionary People’s Party, which called for “full education to be provided to the people”.
Since its birth 86 years ago, Thammasat has been the backdrop for many of the country’s key political events.
It was originally named “Mahawitthayalai Wicha Thammasat Lae Kanmueang” (University of Moral and Political Sciences) by its founder Pridi Banomyong – a leader of the People’s Party who later became prime minister.
Pridi also served as the university’s first chancellor until March 1946.
Under his leadership, the university became the clandestine headquarters of the underground anti-Japanese Free Thai Movement during World War II.
End of an era
In 1952, Pridi fled overseas after failing to oust the military junta led by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram. The junta promptly shortened the university’s name and removed its reference to “politics”. Plaek became Thammasat’s first non-civilian rector in March that year, serving until September 1957.
He was succeeded by another military strongman when Thanom took the Thammasat helm from January 1960 to December 1963. Thanom resigned as rector just nine days after becoming prime minister following the unexpected death of his predecessor Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.
Thanom was linked with Thammasat again in October 1976, when his return ignited the protest that led to the massacre.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk