By Pravit Rojanaphruk,
NCPO, anti-coup students told to engage in dialogue before matters get out of hand
The escalation of political confrontation between the military junta and the 14 detained anti-coup students and their supporters should be quickly toned down before it is too late, concerned scholars said yesterday.
The call came as Mahidol University peace expert Gothom Arya volunteered to talk to the government in order to avoid the situation getting out of control.
“There’s a need to have someone to talk to both sides. I can go and talk to the military,” Gothom said yesterday.
Gothom suggested that his colleague Ekaphan Pinthawanij, also a peace and human-rights expert at Mahidol, could talk to the detained students, as many of them know and trust him.
Meanwhile the government stood firm in its stance that the 14 students, who are members of the Neo Democracy Movement (NDM), should be tried in a military court for violating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) ban on political gatherings of five or more people. The 14, who have also been charged with sedition, face maximum imprisonment of seven years.
The students insisted they would not seek bail, leading to growing anger and calls for the government to release them unconditionally.
Chulalongkorn University professor of sociology Surichai Wungaeo said both sides – particularly the government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha – must ease tensions now or risk ruining any hope of forging reconciliation.
Surichai said the NCPO and the Prayut administration must recognise that they cannot resist the tide of global democratisation in the long run.
“We must find a way to de-escalate the situation quickly,” Surichai said. As for the detained students, he said they must be careful not to become pawns of those who wanted to see an outright confrontation. “There’s a game for total fight and the society is still divided into two sides.”
Ekaphan said the latest confrontation showed how deep the conflict really is and called for the end to the use of military courts against students and civilians as a pre-condition for de-escalating the conflict. He said students should also recognise that they can still fight while seeking bail.
General Ekachai Sriwilas, director of the Office of Peace and Governance at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said both sides needed to ask themselves first whether they truly wished to see the problem resolved. This, he added, would help guide their appropriate actions.
At present, both sides have been taking actions that went against the hope for positive results. Ekachai said the students’ demand for democracy was justified, but the way they demanded it was problematic as it could fuel strife if violence broke out during their protests. Once there is an outbreak of violence, the military would have no choice but to take harsh measures to suppress it, and that in turn would prolong the process of returning democracy to society.
The government and the NCPO, on the contrary, had some flexibility on how it enforced relevant laws and orders. The NCPO’s orders were up to the NCPO to justify, while there were other legal options for the government not to take the students to the military court, but instead to a civil court, he remarked. They need to talk to one another, he concluded.
Meanwhile, Prayut rejected a suggestion for him to use his extensive power under the post-coup interim constitution to grant amnesty to the 14 arrested student activists.
“I won’t do it. I can’t do it. If I use Article 44 in this case, I will also have to give amnesty to other people too. And the process will be unending,” he said.
The student activists have been detained in remand after refusing to seek bail.
Article 44 empowers Prayut, as head of the NCPO, to make any order to strengthen public unity and harmony whenever he sees it necessary for the benefit of reform.
Piyarat Chongthep, a student activist working closely with NDM, said the only fair way to end the current conflict between the junta and the students was to release the 14 detainees unconditionally. She said the students should not be prosecuted because they were innocent.
“Releasing them under Article 44 or granting them amnesty would mean that they are guilty when actually they are not,” she said.