Thai activists swap protests for ballot boxes
Three years ago, Chonticha "Lookkate" Jangrew and Piyarat "Toto" Chongthep were two of tens of thousands of youth protesters on the streets of Bangkok calling for a dissolution of parliament, a new constitution and reform of the monarchy.
The two weren't calling the shots on how the protests unfolded but they supported the movement in their own capacity. Lookkate, 30, used her legal skills and interest in human rights to negotiate with police as the protests unfolded on the streets. Toto, on the other hand, was part of a group that defended the protesters from security, called WeVolunteer.
Now the two are hoping to take their cause to the ballot box as candidates in the May 14 election.
Lookkate, who is going door-to-door asking people to vote for her in the upcoming election, faces possible jail time on charges of sedition and defaming the Thai king during unprecedented protests in 2020. Her progressive Move Forward party is campaigning on reducing the severity of punishments for royal insult and how it is applied. Political experts say that many agendas that the youth movement raised in 2020 are now part of the country's mainstream political discourse, including calls to amend the country's strict lese majeste law.
"I truly believe that if you want to change in this country to achieve a true democracy, both the street protests and legislative path need to move forward together," she said.
The 2020 pro-democracy protests that started as an anti-government movement broke ground in Thailand by questioning the supremacy of Thailand's monarchy were eventually suppressed, with hundreds arrested and facing criminal cases.
The law, which makes criticising the monarchy a criminal offence punishable by up to 15 years of jail time has been used against at least 240 people since the protests emerged in late 2020, according to records compiled by Thai Lawyer for Human Rights.
Lookkate says she herself has 28 criminal cases pending against her - including two of lese majeste, which would end her parliamentary career if she were to win a seat. Anyone convicted of an offence is disqualified from the legislature.
"I want to use my knowledge and skills in order to work with the party, including revoking any laws that take away people's right of expression or (work on) the law on torture and enforced disappearance," said Lookkate, who is running for the third district of Pathum Thani, a province north of Bangkok.
In Bangkok, Toto is campaigning on a similar platform for the same party. He cruises around local neighbourhoods and walks through the streets meeting voters with hopes that they will provide him with momentum for change as the sometimes-violent street protests yielded few tangible results.
He currently has over a dozen cases against him in court, from his activist days, including the 112 and 116 charges, which altogether add up to 50 years of imprisonment.
"You can break me but I will not bend. I know myself; I am serious about everything that I do, it's become a mission to act right away, especially if I am sure that it's the right thing to do," said Toto.
Other parties like the Pheu Thai and Thai Sang Thai have also welcomed youth activists into their ranks either as candidates or policymakers ahead of the poll, according to political watchers.
The Move Forward Party with its young members have drafted new policies, including those that concern LGBT rights or ending the military draft which they hope will appeal to young voters.
"The old way of politics is dying, a new leaf is turning. This election will be a test of whether I am right or not. We'll have to see after May 14 (election)," said Toto.