One small step at a time, one giant leap for Thai democracy

Student protestors in Thailand are venturing into uncharted territory, with radical calls for reform of the monarchy and government, but student activist Francis Bunkueanun Paothong of Mahidol University believes the movement must aim small to achieve big change

Francis Bunkueanun Paothong
August 26, 2020
One small step at a time, one giant leap for Thai democracy
Students flash the Hunger Games salute at an anti-government rally at Mahidol University in Nakhon Pathom on August 18. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

Francis Bunkueanun Paothong studies International Relations at Mahidol University International College. He is a student organiser and founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition of Salaya Students.

It is a common fact that Rak Nong – Thai for ‘love you, sister and brother’ –  is a song that has a place in the hearts of many Mahidol students. 

We know the lyrics of this song word by word. But little do many know that within a solemn and romantic tone, there lies memories and hopes of the students who desire a better country, a chance for liberty and justice to bloom. And for a country that spent its days living in despair, that hope is distant, yet real.

Large parts of our common history in the 1976 Thammasat Massacre were often omitted. Many still think that it was largely committed against Thammasat and Chulalongkorn students. But little do people know that Mahidol students were among those massacred as well. 

The University of Medical Sciences (the name used by the Mahidol University back then) students, who volunteered to serve at the protest’s Medical Unit, perished during the Massacre as they cared and nursed patients from bullet wounds and injuries perpetrated by paramilitary groups and military officers. Many were forced to flee into the jungle, take up arms, and fight against the Government. 

One of our Mahidol alumni, Jin Kammachon, who became a soldier of the Communist Party, spent his time composing a song, expressing his painful memories from the Massacre, and his wishes to nurture poor souls who perished, fighting for the right to breath free. It was then and there where Rak Nong, as it was called, became one of the most recognisable songs of the time. Mahidol students used it on numerous occasions, many of them celebratory, without ever knowing its meaning.

That was until last week, on August 18, when we brought the song back to its original intent at a protest attended by some 2,000 people at Mahidol University, organised by us at Coalition of Salaya Students. 

It was not easy to organise our demonstration from the ground up. Evidently, Mahidol University refused to recognise us and rejected our request to utilise their spaces for our event. Fights were fought. Tears were shed. Difficulties after difficulties. Despite the University refusing to protect us, and legal threats from various authorities, we decided that giving in to pressure was not an option. 

When I began facing the pressure from my own family, threatening to cut financial support for my education if I still insisted on going, I decided that whatever happens, the show must go on. I helped everyone in the way I know I can.

Commemorating those who lost their lives in the fight for liberty was how we changed the perception of Rak Nong for many of our fellow students. Even though it could be seen as incremental, it is clear that perceptions of the song are changing. For the better. 

Rak Nong resonated to everyone who tuned in that night like it resonated with Jin Kammachon and our alumni, and touched everyone who was there. It was at this time that Rak Nong had a new meaning, the meaning it was intended to be written after the Massacre – the song about painful and arduous experiences, with endless determination to be free from sadness and fear, a song written for perished souls sacrificed, so that everyone could be free.

When we look back into what happened that night on August 18, we realise something crucial to the movement at-large. To bring about everlasting change, incremental actions are necessary.

The state of our nation is precarious, and in serious need for change. But it is also complex to the point that requires every able mind to untangle the problems and start solving it

Many did not realise that one small action could change things in ways they cannot understand. What we did that night was singing our University’s classic song. But in many ways, our fellow students began to view that song in a new light. Realising the struggles that our seniors had to go through, so that we could live free.

One small action may not be significant, but that may be enough to effect changes to create a free and equal society based on democratic principles of governance.

Which comes to the point that we were trying to make. Our movement at large is diverse, and that is the beauty of it. Opinions were formed. Ideas were challenged. And that, to me, is a sign of good health in a democracy. But that alone, we must admit, cannot change anything. 

To achieve our perceived goals; to create a more democratic society, we must be able to move at a pace where everyone can still discuss their ideas while being able to build a foundation for our future that we desire. 

In a movement where one’s liberty and future are at stake, there will always be an urge to act with a sense of urgency. And that is not wrong. However, if we are to succeed, the effectiveness of one’s movement is determined by how one strategises their acts, and how those actions could be effective to achieve that goal. 

The state of our nation is precarious, and in serious need for change. But it is also complex to the point that requires every able mind to untangle the problems and start solving it. And that will take time. 

It is in our opinion to remind our friends and colleagues that changes cannot be made in a swift pace and short period of time, it may not even finish in our lifetimes. But the fact that it can be changed, albeit however small or incremental, is enough for us to keep doing what we do. 

The desire for a better society requires patience. The desire for a better life requires perseverance. The desire for the country we hope for requires determination. And to that extent, continuous and progressive efforts towards change are what’s important for our nation’s future.

Those who fight for the democratic movement would do well to remember not to lose their sights on the objectives, not to lose themselves in idealistic hopes and dreams for the future, but to remain grounded in the present, and to focus on how we can bring about realistic changes, step by step, that benefit everyone. 

For instance, Americans are about to face another presidential election, many have their ideal candidates in mind. Many have settled with Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist who appealed to many young Americans. But in the end, with Donald Trump, the threat to the American Democracy, still reigning, a broad political coalition, from progressives to conservatives alike, recognised a common goal and united behind Joe Biden – a man who embraces basic human decency and the ideals of liberty and justice for all Americans.

As for all of us, dangerous and treacherous paths are ahead of us. We cannot afford to lose our focus to satisfy our political views and needs. In the end, our duty to the movement is nothing more than a mere vehicle for the future, bringing everyone to a better destination that we hope for. 

As for this moment, with more challenges rising everyday, every able mind and soul is needed. To desire a better country, we all have to do our part. And only then, our better future can become true.

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