Top: Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and other activists speak at a news conference at Thammasat University on Sept. 9, 2020.
When student-led protests broke out in February, they were sparked by the disbandment of a popular opposition party. The movement soon gained momentum, spurred onward by discontent among the younger generations with PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been in power since he staged a coup in 2014.
The protests were paused due to the coronavirus outbreak in March. They resumed again in July, with even larger turnouts. The sight of young people taking to the streets to demand PM Prayut’s resignation captivated the country and beyond.
But the demonstrations truly took a historic turn that shocked all when a 22-year-old student named Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, or Rung, stepped onto a stage at Thammasat University’s Rangsit Campus on Aug. 10. There, she read a 10-point manifesto that challenged the institution at the very top of Thailand’s social strata.
“We came up with the ten demands as a group,” fellow activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak recalled of that fateful night. “However, Panusaya volunteered to read it out on stage. I asked her, ‘Are you sure, since it’s very radical?’ and she insisted on doing so.”
Speaking onstage to loud cheers, Panusaya listed out demands to reform the monarchy, from bringing the crown assets under civilian control to abolishing the royal defamation law. Although the campaign faced stiff resistance from foes and allies alike at first, reforming the monarchy soon dominated the protests, eventually becoming one of their core demands.
Calls to reform the institution aren’t exactly new. As far back as 2010, historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul issued a similar manifesto that sought to democratize the royal institution, and protest leader Arnon Nampha in July said the movement should not stop at ousting the government. But it was Panusaya’s bold statement on that night in Thammasat that finally tipped the scales.
“The magnitude was way beyond our expectations,” Parit said. “Everyone is talking more openly about the monarchy. It has long been an issue in Thai society, but no one was talking about it since they were all afraid.”
He added, “We shattered that ceiling.”
A Controversial Figure
Frank discussions about the monarchy remain a taboo in Thailand. Panusaya’s bid to escalate the ongoing anti-government protests alarmed many allies who feared it would alienate large portions of Thai public. Opposition politicians, who had been supporting the protests until that point, sought to distance themselves from the budding movement.
Pro-establishment figures also seized on the turn of events to question whether the protest leadership had a hidden agenda to sabotage the Royal Family. PM Prayut Chan-o-cha himself called Panusaya’s speech inappropriate and said she has stepped “out of line.”
“I think she may not understand Thai society and its roots,” said Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of royalist Thai Phakdee Group – which was formed in response to Panusaya’s reform campaign. “What she’s doing is overthrowing the monarchy institution, and they are close to becoming communists.”
“This will fulfill the desire of those masterminding the protests from behind,” Warong continued.
Apparently fearful of reprisals, Thammasat University issued a statement that its administration was not aware of what Panusaya planned to say onstage when it permitted her group to use the campus for the protest on Aug. 10.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist from Ubon Ratchathani University, agreed that the monarchy reform campaign is a double-edged sword for the protesters. On one hand, It provokes discussion among the new generation who “already have doubts” about the institution, but at the same time invites backlash from conservatives, he said.
“They [the calls for monarchy reform] undermine the legitimacy of the movement, but that’s normal in democratic society where different opinions exist,” Titipol said.
There were also legal consequences. Starting in late November, police slapped the reformists, Panusaya included, with a flurry of lese majeste charges– the very same offense that the activists sought to abolish.
Panusaya alone faces four counts of lese majeste. Each of them can land her in prison up to 15 years. But that does not seem to deter Panusaya from pursuing the campaign, despite the fact that she already spent 16 days in jail in October for her roles in organizing the anti-government protests.
“She was strong and brave enough to keep her own fears in check so those around her won’t tremble in fear,” her lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri said. “Even while she was imprisoned, Rung told me she wanted to see prison reforms and demand various rights for convicts.”
‘She is Very Ambitious’
The youngest of three daughters, Panusaya was born on Sept. 15, 1998, in Nonthaburi province, where she completed her high school education. She is currently enrolled in Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology.
In previous interviews with the media, Panusaya said she became involved in activism upon joining Thammasat University, and mentioned that her father supported her interest in political matters. Panusaya is also a member of Dome Revolution Party, a university group that seeks to instill a sense of political awakening among students, where she met Parit.
“She’s full of vigor. She always suggests her ideas whenever we discuss what to do next,” Parit said. “Outside of politics, she’s very kind. She always shares food with me and others whenever she goes out to buy something.”
In spite of her reputation as the face of the pro-democracy movement, Panusaya described herself as shy – a verdict shared by those close to her.
“In reality, Rung is a rather shy girl, gentle and nagging, befitting being the youngest daughter in the family,” Sirikan, who often met with Panusaya alone during her imprisonment, said.
“Her persona on the protest stage and role as a protest leader is not all who she is,” Sirikan went on. “When she takes off that hat, she’s just an ordinary girl, but special in the sense that she’s interested in politics and society.”
She is also a unique representation of women in what is traditionally regarded as the men’s stage. Panusaya is often the sole woman in news conferences held by the protest leaders. This is hardly exclusive to the pro-democracy causes, however, since most of the political movements in Thailand are mostly led by male politicians and activists.
Her gender role does not go unnoticed. Just last month, Panusaya was listed by the BBC as one of the 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2020.
“Having women like Panusaya makes more women, especially high school students, feel more comfortable joining the movement,” political science lecturer Titipol said. “It also improves the image of the movement and brings up gender issues, such as abortion rights and sex worker welfare, to wider public discussion.”
Panusaya and her fellow activists have yet to announce when the next protest will be held. But when they do, they will face their toughest challenge yet.
Top: A BBC Thai interview with Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and her sister.
The second wave of coronavirus pandemic has spread to at least 40 provinces, and the government said it would ban any gatherings in order to contain the outbreak. The police may also file yet more charges against Panusaya and her friends, bogging them down in endless legal complaints.
However, there is no sign that Panusaya will call it quits anytime soon.
“It has always been her ambition to fight for democracy and address the issue of monarchy. She’s very ambitious,” Parit said. “She believes it’s time to push her agenda forward.”
We decide to recognize groups of individuals, instead of specific persons, for this year’s entry to reflect the efforts of the many to achieve a common goal.
Although anti-government protests captured much of the news coverage, many other ideologies and interests made their voices heard throughout 2020, such as students raging against uniforms, pro-monarchy supporters, farmers, and local residents fighting for their communities.
We rely more on the delivery services, whether foods or other essential goods, than ever this year due to the coronavirus pandemic that forced many to stay indoors. Props to the ‘riders’ who keep us fed and well stocked.
Aor Sor Mor
Uncles and aunties check on their neighbors, keep track of travel records in their communities, and alert the health authorities as soon as there’s sign of virus danger. These 1-million strong rural health volunteers are widely credited with keeping the pandemic in check.
First responders in Korat massacre
Thirty people were killed in February when a disgruntled soldier went on a shooting spree in Korat before he was eventually shot dead by security officers. It was the worst mass shooting in Thailand’s history.
The death tolls would have been even more grim had it not been for police, rescue workers, and bystanders who rushed to rescue the wounded and shepherd those caught in crossfire to safety – some of them sacrificing their own lives in doing so.