How firebrand protest leader Parit steps back from the brink


Activist Parit "Penguin" Chirawak gives the three-fingered Hunger Games salute as he arrives at Nangleong police station in Bangkok on August 25, 2020 to accept charges relating to a protest in front of the Royal Thai Army headquarters in July. — AFP

A firebrand leader of student-led protests against the Thai establishment, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak may sound aggressive on stage and at times may seem bent on getting what he wants at all costs. But on the ground and at a critical moment recently, he also showed his non-violent side.

Unlike many protest leaders before him, Parit did not encourage demonstrators to smash through police blocking their way at the Sanam Luang rally in Bangkok.

Though he likes to hurl harsh words at the head of state and people in power, Parit has always insisted that rallies remain peaceful.

That Sunday morning, after announcing the planned protest march to Government House had been cancelled, Parit said the “big surprise” was to march to Privy House and hand over the 10-point manifesto on monarchy reform to the King’s advisers.

Before starting the march, Parit said: “All my fellow protesters must be able to go home safely. If asked by leaders, you must stop walking and sit down. When you meet the blue-clad police officers, don’t rush to confront them. Just smile at them sweetly.”

The protest leaders planned to submit their petition to Privy Council President General Surayud Chulanont directly, but they ended up having to hand it over to Bangkok police chief Pol Lt-General Papakpon Pongpetra instead. As well as demands for Prime Minister Prayut to resign and the charter to be rewritten by an elected council, the petition included the 10-point manifesto on monarchy reform issued at the August 10 rally at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus.

Declaring victory

Parit said the protest had succeeded when activists managed to install a second “People’s Party plaque” at Sanam Luang in memory of the 1932 Siamese Revolution, which abolished absolute monarchy.

The plaque had disappeared by the following morning.

“The biggest victory is sparking courage, ” Parit told protesters, before leading a chant of “down with dictatorship, long live the people”.

Before wrapping up on Sunday morning, Parit told protesters that the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration had come up with guidelines for supporters follow.

The guidelines include giving the anti-dictatorship three-finger salute when the national anthem is played, not standing when the Royal anthem is played and instead holding out three fingers, and honking when a VIP motorcade passes by.

The organisers said the weekend protest was held to “reclaim power stolen from the people”. Police estimated the turnout at 18,000 while rally organisers said it was closer to 200,000, but whatever the true figure it marked the largest protest since the 2014 coup that brought General Prayut to power.

Growing defiance

Parit, 22, is a Thammasat University student and former president of the Students Union of Thailand. He was prominent in youth-driven anti-government flash mobs that emerged last year.

He currently faces charges including sedition stemming from his participation in the July 18 Free Youth rally held at Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

After being released on bail last month, he declared that the time he spent behind bars should not be wasted and people should talk more openly about the monarchy.

“We have lifted the ceiling, there is no lowering it now!” he said.

Born in Bangkok in 1998, straight-talking Parit once said his childhood was marked by the mess created by Thai politics.

In 2006, he witnessed yellow-shirt protesters march past his Bangkok elementary school, then experienced his first military coup in September that year.

Three years later in 2009-2010, he watched as red-shirt protesters took over streets to rally against the government.

While in secondary school, Parit witnessed protests across the capital held by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.

“I grew up in that kind of atmosphere. My generation has been living with political mess, ” Parit told The Momentum online media outlet in 2018. In fact, he used a much harsher word to describe what he witnesses.

Parit, who also co-founded the now-defunct Future Forward Party, said the young generation should create a political institution to represent their views.

“If we are run by political institutions that belong to the old generation, then we will end up having to follow the old culture and the same old system, ” he said.

As Future Forward co-founder, he said it would be easy to find support from people who want better lives and who believe the party can help make it possible.

However, Future Forward was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February for illegally accepting funds from its leader.

While attending Bangkok’s prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School, Parit joined the Education for Liberation of Siam student group seeking reform of the Thai education system. The group was created in 2013 by Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, another prominent student activist.

Parit says his credos are democracy and the power of the people. “People must come first. We have to become one with the masses. Students have to work more with labour unions and ordinary people.”

Inspired by French Revolution

His interest in politics was piqued at the age of 10 when he read about the 1789 French Revolution, Parit told The Nation in a 2016 interview.

“The revolution’s slogan, ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité’ [liberty, equality, fraternity], resonated with me and encouraged me to learn more about our own political history, ” he said.

His role model was Chit Phumisak, the Thai author, historian and poet who was shot dead by authorities in 1966 – six months after he joined the Communist Party of Thailand to fight against the state. Parit said the activist’s death inspired him to follow in his footsteps and become a historian in the future.

The young activist first drew media attention at the tender age of 16, when he unfurled a banner at an anti-corruption event held at a Bangkok hotel in 2015. He asked Prayut how Thai youngsters can be kept from the path of corruption.

A year later, he won widespread support for speaking up against a draft Constitution that threatened to deprive Thai children of 15 years of free education.

Since enrolling at Thammasat University’s Political Science Faculty, his involvement in politics has deepened. He has often been accused of organising illegal protests, yet he insists that the more he is intimidated and abused by those in power, the more he wants to fight.

In his eyes, Thais had their future stolen in 2014, when the Prayut-led military coup ousted an elected government.

Parit once said that Thailand still has a long way to go before it attains real democracy. France, he said, needed a couple of hundred years after its revolution to become fully democratic, while it’s only been 88 years since the 1932 Siamese Revolution. — Thai PBS World Syndicate/The Nation/ANN

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