Many of the activists who participated in the October 1973 student uprising have managed to return to the corridors of power after the May 14 election this year, but they continue to face major challenges in achieving the democracy they dreamed of half a century ago.
Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai, one of the student activists of the uprising generation who are widely known in Thailand as “Octobrists”, is now playing a key role in driving the democratization agenda after nearly a decade of a military-backed regime under Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Phumtham, who always says that he will never give up the fight for democracy, has been assigned to chair a committee to study the frame of reference for the amendment of the junta-sponsored 2017 Constitution. He later picked a 35-member ad hoc panel consisting of legal experts, politicians and political activists to explore possibilities and ways to arrange such a referendum. The Constitutional Court had ruled in March 2021 that the current charter could not be amended without a referendum.
The opposition Move Forward Party and a civic group, iLaw — which had previously submitted more than 200,000 signatures calling for a new constitution — are staying out of the panel as they disagree with the government’s method. Parit Wacharasindhu, spokesman of the Move Forward Party, said his party wanted a completely new constitution written by elected drafters.
The ruling Pheu Thai Party has promised an amendment of the charter to make it more democratic, but compromised with the establishment elite on leaving Section I and II on maintaining the current form of Thailand as a unitary state as well as the privileges and roles of the monarchy untouched.
The term Octobrist originally stems from the October Manifesto issued by Russian Tsar Nicholas II in 1905 to grant certain civil liberties. Thai scholar Kanokrat Lertchoosakul from Chulalongkorn University first used the term to describe the student activists who participated in political movements during the period from the uprising of October 14, 1973 and the massacre in Thammasat University on October 6, 1976. Her Ph.D thesis explained how the people of this generation had managed to play a significant role in Thailand’s political changes over the past decades.
Beside Phumtham, many Octobrists are now working with the ruling Pheu Thai Party, including Prommin Lertsuridej, who is secretary general to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, and MPs Chaturon Chaisang, Adisorn Peingkes and Dr. Tossaporn Serirak.
They had all joined the student movement in the 1970s in different ways. Phumtham was involved in political activities with a small group in Chulalongkorn University where he was a student of political science. On the day of the uprising, Phumtham, together with colleagues, including Surachart Bamrungsuk, who is now a professor on security and international relations at Chulalongkorn University, led students to march from the campus in Sam Yan to Thammasat, Tha Prachan, where the protest started.
Prommin, then a first-year medical student at Mahidol University, joined the protest on the morning of October 14 in the area adjacent to Thammasat before rushing to Ramathibodi Hospital to voluntarily join a medical team to rescue victims of the military crackdown on the day.
Chaturon travelled from the northern Chiang Mai province, where he was studying medicine at Chiang Mai University, to join the bloody protest right there at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok.
Like many others, Adisorn, a law student at Thammasat, joined the protest as an activist who called for a constitution and a general election to end the authoritarian regime of Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn.
Both Chaturon and Adisorn have politics in their DNA, as they were born into political families. Their fathers were former MPs, representing constituencies in Chachoengsao and Khon Kaen provinces respectively.
Rightists’ suppression of the progressive student movement after a massacre at Thammasat on October 6, 1976 forced Phumtham, also known as Comrade Yai, Prommin a.k.a Comrade Charas, Chaturon a.k.a. Comrade Suphap, and Adisorn a.k.a Comrade Sornchai or Song to join the Communist Party of Thailand’s insurgency in the jungle, mostly in the North and Northeastern areas of the country. Comrades Yai and Sornchai stayed together in a stronghold in the northern Lao province of Oudomxay.
The student-turned-communist insurgents struggled with difficulties in the revolutionary war alongside peasants and proletarians in the jungle for 4-5 years before returning home to continue their education when the government under General Prem Tinsulanonda granted a relaxation in 1980. That eventually resulted in the collapse of the communist party and the end of the civil war in Thailand.
They have different memories and impressions about the revolutionary war, but share one thing in common — the aspiration to liberate Thailand and make it democratic.
Upon his return from the jungle, Phumtham worked as a social worker at Social Volunteer Project, an agency under the Social Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University, before joining a business unit at one of the Shin Corp affiliations, and later joining the Thai Rak Thai Party founded by Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prommin worked as a physician in district hospitals in Khon Kaen province for years before joining the Shin Corp business empire, and later helped Thaksin build and run Thai Rak Thai.
The party was dissolved after the 2006 coup but reincarnated as People’s Power, which was dissolved in 2008, before its transformation into the current Pheu Thai Party. Most of the Octobrists in the party were banned from politics since then, but maintained their link and political activities with Thaksin’s camp.
Both Phumtham and Prommin were regarded as Thaksin loyalists, but Prommin was likely closer to the former prime minister as he served as secretary general to the prime minister when Thaksin was in power. He has been given the same position in the current Srettha Thavisin administration.
Chaturon and Adisorn utilized their families’ leverage to enter politics, running for MP seats in their home provinces. With strong support from his father and former MP Anant, Chaturon, then a member of the Democrat Party, won an election for the first time in 1986. Adisorn of the then-leftist Labor Democratic Party failed his first attempt in 1983 before succeeding in 1988 as a candidate of Chalerm Yubamrung’s Mass Party. Chaturon and Adisorn joined General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s New Aspiration Party before joining Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
A new generation of activists and politicians have expressed their disappointment with the role of the Octobrists in the Pheu Thai Party during negotiations to forge a 11-party coalition that formed a new government in July. It was Adisorn who launched a verbal attack against the progressive Move Forward Party when Pheu Thai insisted on having its choice as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. This was soon after the election when Move Forward was aspiring to form a government in alliance with Pheu Thai.
A major blow to Phumtham’s reputation was cutting a deal with former military-alliance parties, including United Thai Nation, Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana to form a new coalition after Move Forward candidate Pita Limjaroenrat failed to get enough support to win the vote for prime minister in July.
Phumtham was slammed as a betrayer of the cause and a pretentious actor when he offered what was seen as an insincere apology to younger fellows in the Move Forward Party and pretended to invite the party to join the new coalition.
Somchai Preechasilapakul, a law lecturer from Chiang Mai University, expressed his disappointment openly against Chaturon for voting for Srettha as prime minister on August 22.
“It’s sad and deceitful to see you, Phi Oi [Chaturon’s nickname], as a part of the elite network which you have fought against in your entire life,” Somchai said in a Facebook post on August 22.
Chaturon, who knows Somchai in person, replied two days later that he admired the scholar and respected his opinion, but the word deceitful was too strong. “I stood firmly to oppose the deal to switch camps and made it clear in public that I’m a minority in the party. I have no choice but to vote to support Prime Minister Srettha in accordance with the party’s resolution,” he said in his Facebook.
Octobrist Chaturon justified his stance, saying he took no position in the government and the party but as an MP intended to work in the House to push forward the amendment of the military-sponsored charter to make the country more democratic as promised.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk