Tuesday, November 24, 2020

"Rung" Thai: Royalists Chopped Her Hair & Dyed It Black

(Staff articles from the ABC NEWS on 22 November 2020.)

Panusaya Sithijirawattankul, known as "Rung", has become the face of Thailand's youth protest movement. With tens of thousands of protesters cheering her on, Panusaya Sithijirawattankul stepped on to a stage near Bangkok's ceremonial Grand Palace and confidently did what most Thais would not dare to do. She spoke out against the country's monarchy.

The 21-year-old university student, who is known by her nickname "Rung", has become one of the faces of Thailand's growing student-led protest movement. In front of a big screen projecting her image to the crowd, the third-year sociology student addressed the biggest anti-establishment rally since the 2014 coup which saw military General Prayuth Chan-ocha seize power.

"[We have] the same ideology, the same intention, the same goals: to end the Prayuth regime and to reform the monarchy, isn't that right?" she said to loud cheers and applause. Rung says she is not trying to topple the monarchy, but believes it should be reformed.

Far from being afraid of her country's strict lese majeste law, which makes it illegal to defame or insult the monarchy, Rung has loudly and proudly declared her desire for the royal family to have less power in politics. "I decided to speak out because if we never speak about it, the change will never happen," Rung told the ABC. "I am not scared to be jailed."

Despite this, Rung insists she has not insulted the monarchy, saying: "We don't want to topple the institution. Our proposal is reform, not revolution." Rung says Thailand needs to break out of a cycle of coups and elections to be able to move forward.

A jail term of between three and 15 years is a possibility for the young activists under the lese majeste law. Several have already been arrested and released on bail for other protest-related charges under different legislation over the past two months, and Rung says her time will come.

"I [will] be definitely arrested one day because the arrest warrant was issued," she said. "What I have to do is to plan what I will do before and after being arrested, so that this movement will keep going and not stop if I or other leaders are gone."

The student-led, anti-monarchy protest movement has been building since July with several rallies per week. The student-led protest movement is calling for new elections and reform of the monarchy. The leaders started with three demands: for parliament to be dissolved, for the constitution to be changed, and for an end to the harassment of opposition activists.

After the King took the throne in 2016, the palace required revisions to a new constitution that gave him greater emergency powers. He has since taken personal control over some army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.

"Thai politics has not been developed, it keeps going around in a circle. Coup d'etat, election, coup d'etat, election," Rung said. "If we want to have a better life, there must be good politics. So we have to fix the problems."

In August, the group held a "Harry Potter vs He Who Must Not Be Named"-themed protest with pictures of villain Lord Voldemort as a not-so-subtle reference to being banned from speaking out about Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The three-finger salute from The Hunger Games has also made its way into demonstrations as a symbol for democracy.

By late August, the subtleties were replaced with unprecedented and very public demands, including curbing the King's powers over the constitution, politicians, the armed forces, and public funds, and abolishing the lese majeste law.

It was Rung who took the stage at one rally to read out a 10-point manifesto detailing them for the first time. "The crowd cheered so loudly," she said. "It was unbelievable that Thai society, which has been oppressed for that long, became so brave. I was also shocked about myself being so brave to speak out … it was so exciting."

Within hours, Rung said, she was being followed by plain-clothes police officers. "They watched me from outside my dorm and sometimes I was followed by cars when I went out," she said. "They disappeared for a while, but they came back again a few days ago."

"They said it was fine if my movement was about government [but] asked I not speak about the monarchy," she said. "I told them I could not do that because it is the root cause of the problem and if we don't fix the monarchy, we can't fix other problems. I must mention it."

Some older generations are supporting the students' cause, according to Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a political science lecturer from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. Others had been "shocked" they had dared to call for a "sacred, untouchable and beloved institution" to be reformed.

"The demands have been the most radical demands in Thai political history," Dr Lertchoosakul said. "[Older generations] would not dare to speak out about what we really think. Whether we love or hate anything, we have to keep it inside. This is what we are taught since we were very young."

Thai royalists have expressed their dismay at what the protesters have been saying and have held rallies of their own. At one of the largest in August, about 1,200 members of the Thai Loyal group waved national flags and held portraits of the King to show their unwavering support for the monarchy.

Prominent politician Warong Dechgitvigrom launched the group because he said he felt the monarchy was under attack. "The point of our group is to protect the monarchy with knowledge and facts," Mr Dechgitvigrom told the Reuters news agency. "The monarchy institution has no part in governing the country. The institution is the moral support that connects the people together."

Thai Loyal has also set out three demands: No dissolution of parliament, maximum legal action against anyone who seeks to topple the monarchy, and no change to the constitution unless it is done through proper channels.

"I want the new generation to appreciate the country, religion and monarchy as much as they can because without any one of them, the country will not be able to survive," Somporn Sooklert, a demonstrator at the rally, said.

Police have said they are considering charging protest leaders who held a demonstration on September 19, but have not yet done so, nor have they said what those charges could be. Mr Prayuth has warned Thailand would be "engulfed in flames" if division persisted, but has so far allowed large rallies to go ahead as an expression of free speech.

He added that demands for monarchy reform were not acceptable and now was not the right time to be discussing such issues. "I hear you have political grievances and that you have issues with the constitution, I respect your opinions," the Prime Minister said. "But right now, our country has some very much more immediately painful issues that it must address — that is the economic destruction brought about by COVID-19."

Rung Was Jailed & Her Hair Chopped & Dyed Black

Thai anti-government protester Rung feared she'd be thrown in jail for speaking out against the King. Then came a knock at her hotel room door: Rung has played a prominent role at several anti-government protests in Bangkok since July.

As a massive anti-government rally in Bangkok last month was finishing up for the night, the leaders of Thailand's youth protest movement decided to split up. With rumours suggesting there might be a police crackdown, everyone set about hiding in different hotels in the city to avoid arrest.

That included 21-year-old Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, who's known by her nickname Rung. That night, she sat in her hotel room worried about what might happen next. By early the next morning, her were worst fears were realised. "There were plain-clothes police waiting at the lobby in the morning since 6:00am," Rung told the ABC. "Then and around 8:00am they contacted the manager to knock on my door.

"They used a key card to open my door and they had an arrest warrant to arrest me under the sedition penal code, the computer crimes act, two offences under the communicable disease act, and an offense of controlling public advertisement by sound amplifier." The charges related to Rung's prominent role at several anti-government protests in Bangkok since July.

The student-led demonstrations have been calling for the ousting of the military-backed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new constitution, and reform to the monarchy institution — a taboo subject in Thailand.

And in August, Rung became the first person to publicly challenge King Maha Vajiralongkorn with a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform, which included demands for curbs on his power and wealth. Thailand's criminal code states that anyone who "defames, insults or threatens" the royal family could face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

Rung had previously told the ABC she "was not scared to be jailed", but one month on, we spoke to her about the fallout of her decision to speak out. As police filed into Rung's hotel room, she sat on the floor with her arms crossed and refused to go with them. Then they brought in a wheelchair, placed her under arrest, and wheeled her out of the hotel to a waiting unmarked police car.

Soon her long, bleached blonde hair was being cut above her shoulders and dyed back to black. Rung spent the next 16 days in two Bangkok prisons. "I never knew what prison life in Thailand was like, and when I stepped in there the fear crept in," the third-year sociology student said.

"Is this the place I have to be? Do I have to wear the uniform? Is this real? Do I have to shower with others watching? Once I got in there, then I realised that all my freedoms that I used to have were all gone."

During her stay at the first prison, Rung said she was in a cold cell with three thin blankets and no bed or pillow. When she was moved to the second one, she said she was put in a crowded cell with 50 other women, no clean drinking water, and one toilet with no privacy.

"Most of the people in the room were in because of drug offenses and fraud, and there were some murderers as well," Rung said. "I cried on the first day, but I tried not to cry on the second day because I didn't want to disturb others. I didn't want them to be worried about me."

Even though Rung was facing serious charges — in Thailand, sedition alone has a maximum penalty of seven years behind bars — her biggest concern was whether the protests she'd planned would continue.

She learned later they were the biggest anti-government demonstrations Thailand had seen in years, and despite a temporary government order banning political gatherings of five or more people, the rallies only grew.

"I thought it would fade but it didn't," she said. "I think it's the anger of the people, anger about their friends being arrested, anger about the demands that have not been met, anger about the crackdown on the protests.

"I was so glad to see people coming to truly ask for their demands." As the student-led protest movement grew, devoted royalists were mobilising too, with large rallies of their own. They dressed in the royal colour yellow, enthusiastically waving banners and flags to declare their unwavering support for the centuries-old monarchy institution.

They've also been turning out in their thousands to catch a glimpse of the King and Queen at recent public appearances outside the Grand Palace and around Thailand's provinces. The Posayajinda family went to one of those events in Bangkok this month.

"I think it is a good thing that the King has changed and adjusted some traditions to get closer to people," Sermsak Posayajinda, 49, told the ABC. "It allows people to reach him and get closer than ever before."

Sermsak, his wife Sasi, and their three daughters respect the monarchy because a previous King gave their ancestors land. Sermsak's grandfather was a royal guard, and they say the royal family helps people with thousands of projects around Thailand.

"The Monarchy institute is the unification of the heart and soul of Thai people," Sasi Posayajinda, 44, told the ABC. "It is the institute that Thais hold on to and it is crucial to have… and we have taught our kids that the monarchy institute contributes and helps society more than many other organisations, politicians or political party can do."

Sermsak and Sasi have been appalled by the young protesters' demands. "They are so rude the way they express themselves with their behaviour, their languages, symbols and banners, it does not create any credibility at all," Sasi said. "The other thing I don't agree with is bullying and harassing people who don't agree with them or people who are neutral. This is not real democracy."

Tensions have been growing in Thailand for months, but last week they reached new heights. On Tuesday, as demonstrators tried to storm into parliament during a debate about the constitution, riot police fired tear gas and water cannons laced with chemicals to keep them back. Officers said they had no choice but to use force because they had to protect the people inside the parliament building. But protesters responded the next day by throwing paint at police headquarters.

MPs ended up voting against a proposal to discuss the monarchy's place in the constitution, further angering the demonstrators outside and prompting the leaders to announce another big protest this week at the Crown Property Bureau.

The next day, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha released a statement saying the "situation had not shown signs of de-escalating" despite his government's attempts. Currently, tensions have not sufficiently abated and may develop into conflict, possibly involving acts of violence," the statement said.

"Therefore, it will be necessary for the government and the concerned security agencies to continue to enhance our measures by enforcing all pertaining laws against protesters who violate the law or infringe upon the rights and freedoms of other citizens."

To this point, at the King's request, no-one has been charged with defaming the royal family. But the Prime Minister's statement hints that could be about to change. Inthira Charoenpura, a famous actress and singer in Thailand who's known by her nickname Sai, has paid for thousands of meals and drinks at protest sites and openly supports the leaders. Inthira Charoenpura says people shouldn't be arrested for asking questions.

She told the ABC she was "so glad to see how the protest movement has grown from a small start" even when the leaders were all put in jail. There should not be anyone getting arrested just because they asked questions or have been suspicious of something," Sai said.

"Checks and balances, transparency in any circumstance is always a good thing." But her support has come at a cost because celebrities in Thailand are encouraged to be neutral when it comes to politics.

"A lot of my work was cancelled, suddenly I was told I was not fit for it," Sai said. "Some of them told me they had to do that, it is okay, it is understandable, they chose to do that and everyone has a price to pay."

That may weigh on the future of the movement, with Dr Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer at University of Sydney who specialises in Thai politics, suggesting that a lot rests on young protesters being able to grow their support base.

"No successful large-scale movement can continue without people joining in," Dr Sinpeng told the ABC. And the people in the middle in Thailand are not under 25, they are middle-aged people, they are parents basically. The protest movement needs buy-in from those people, it can't just be driven by a bunch of student associations and progressive NGOs, they need the buy-in from the middle."

Some Thais from middle-aged and older demographics are starting to join demonstrations, with some funding helmets, masks, and other supplies. Their help is appreciated by the protest leaders, including Rung, who's going to keep fighting while she can.

Now on bail, she is relishing her freedom because she knows it won't last. "I have chosen my path and it needs sacrifice, so while I'm not in jail, while I'm still outside, I have to make it worth my while," she said. "I still remain with my three demands that Prayut and his clans have to leave, change the constitution, and monarchy reform … I will keep on campaigning about it."