Every year, on the first day of school, thousands of first-year students file onto a field on the campus of Chulalongkorn, Thailand’s oldest and among its most prestigious universities, in the heart of the sweltering capital Bangkok. In crisp, white uniforms with slim black belts, they kneel in neat rows in front of a bronze effigy of King Rama VI, the school’s founder, and his father, its namesake. With their foreheads touching the ground, inductees pledge to honor the institution and obey the world’s richest royal family, which shares prestige and power in this Southeast Asian kingdom with its chief protector, the army.
Last year, two freshmen didn’t take the oath.
Before he started college as a political science major, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal read in a book that the practice of prostration had been abolished by King Chulalongkorn, who, the story goes, believed that forcing his subjects to kneel at his feet was cruel and humiliating. Puzzled that the tradition had survived despite a royal decree, Netiwit enlisted a friend to join him in a quiet act of protest. The pair raised their hands and stood up among the sea of students prone in the summer sun. Their peers looked around confusedly as they approached the statue, where they bowed their heads for a moment and then walked away. This simple act of defiance was shocking in a country where being just seen as irreverent toward the monarchy is a criminal offense.
“I don’t want [prostration] to be banned, but people need to be informed about what it means,” Netiwit tells TIME on a recent visit to one of the school’s libraries, saying that the act belies a “hidden political agenda.”
Netiwit, who has emerged as the 20-year-old face of Thailand’s nascent anti-junta movement, looks and feels at ease in the dusty vaults. In his spare time, he works as a librarian at the Santi Pracha Dhamma reading room, a hub for social activists founded by his mentor, a well-known Buddhist scholar named Sulak Sivaraksa. This nerdy-looking kid with glasses and unkempt bangs seemed harmless enough when, at the age of 16, he founded a student group that eventually became known as Education for the Liberation of Siam (as Thailand was called until 1939). He and his loose association of a few dozen high-school students rallied for curricular reform and administered a popular Facebook page, where they outed errant adults for undemocratic “misconduct.”
In early 2014, when it seemed certain that the military was about to overthrow an elected government, the pupils shifted their target and started joining anti-coup and anti-junta protests, so becoming a blip on the regime’s radar. In May 2015, Netiwit was briefly detained along with a few dozen other kids who attended “vigils” in Bangkok and the northern town of Khon Kaen, mourning the one-year anniversary of the death of democracy in Thailand.
When General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s former army chief and now its self-styled Prime Minister, learned that Netiwit was elected Chulalongkorn’s student council president in early May this year, he issued a warning. At a speech just days later at Mahidol University, Chulalongkorn’s main rival, Prayuth told an audience that “extreme thinking is not okay.” Without mentioning his name, he called Netiwit’s brand of disobedience a “disgrace to the institution” of higher learning, according to an account published by the local news site Khaosod. Everyone knew whom Prayuth was talking about. After news reports and concerned friends alerted him to the General’s remarks, Netiwit fired back to his 49,000 Facebook followers: “Who is a disgrace to the nation? … His Excellency the Prime Minister has been destroying the reputation of Thailand for the past three years.”
Prayuth’s putsch on May 22, 2014, was merely the latest in the country’s cycle of coups — 13 successful military takeovers have been carried out over the past nine decades — but this time may be different. The current junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), seized power as the country’s beloved late monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was nearing the end of his life. The ascension of his son Vajiralongkorn, for whom Thais do not share the same admiration and affection, has led to a struggle between the military establishment and pro-democratic elite in the absence of a morally authoritative palace. In the name of stability, the junta spent the two years leading up to Bhumibol’s death laying the groundwork for a new constitution that expands the power of the military.
Thailand was well on the path to democracy when Prayuth seized power, ostensibly to put an end to serial protests, often violent, among rival political parties and camps. In step with regional neighbors that made similar shifts toward more conservative rule (as the Philippines has done under President Rodrigo Duterte), Thailand, under Prayuth’s junta, has abandoned commitments to human rights and civil liberties. Since the coup, restrictions on public assembly, phone and Internet use have tightened immensely, and hundreds of people have been fined or imprisoned on criminal defamation charges, for which Thailand has an eclectic prosecutorial toolkit. More than 100 of those cases were alleged violations of the country’s draconian lèse-majesté law, which criminalizes all perceived insult to the monarchy and is punishable by long periods of imprisonment.
The law is among the strictest of its kind; cases can be brought by anyone, against anyone, at any time, for just about any reason. In early June, a military court sentenced a 34-year-old man to 35 years’ jail for allegedly creating a Facebook account under a fake name and sharing 10 posts deemed insulting to the royal family. This ruling, the harshest to date, prompted swift condemnation from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which issued a statement saying the body was “deeply troubled by the high rate of prosecutions and the courts’ persistence in handing down disproportionate sentences for the offense.” Sunai Phasuk, the senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the current regime “wants to reset the political structure” entirely. “What is now being undone systematically are the achievements of decades of liberalization and democratization,” he tells TIME. “This is just one-man rule with ultimate power.”
The three years since the coup have strained the special relationship with Washington, which regards Thailand as its oldest ally in Asia. The U.S. is Thailand’s top trading partner by far, buying up some $24.4 billion in Thai exports annually and counterbalancing Chinese efforts to secure a strategic foothold in Thailand and wider Southeast Asia. While Washington has been critical of the junta for curtailing human rights and failing to improve on labor and trade abuses, the election of President Donald Trump has signaled a shift in priorities. Trump, who inherited a floundering “Asia rebalance” policy begun by his predecessor Barack Obama but never quite brought to fruition, has invited Prayuth to the White House in a bid to reaffirm ties with a crucial military and economic partner as it veers toward China’s embrace.
Unmolested by outside interference, the junta has gone about creating a social climate described by some as one of fear, by others as one of apathy. “It used to be that they would only go after you if you are a politician, but this time, it’s bad,” says Yingcheep Atchanont, a program manager at iLaw, an NGO that documents violations of free speech. He says the sharp rise in prosecutions and the increasing use of military courts has had a chilling effect on the public. Elections are tentatively planned for late 2018, though polls have been postponed so many times that many people no longer believe or care that they be held on schedule. “Either you feel like it’s okay to live like this, or you’re afraid that you will get into trouble,” says Yingcheep, who says that the only choice is “better to keep quiet.”
Netiwit refuses to. The youngest child of shopkeepers from a village on the outskirts of Bangkok, he views himself as a sort of messenger of social sanity. “I want to show people that they can actually do something, instead of just talking or thinking about it,” he tells TIME. Adjusting his red-rimmed glasses, a feature that makes him immediately recognizable on campus and in newspapers, he says that his generation may be the last to remember Thailand’s imperfect democracy. “Many students now, we know what it was like before the coup,” he says. “We know the junta lies. We know that they create the fear.”
‘A scar on the people of Thailand’
Universities have long been the wellspring of popular uprisings in Thailand. When a snowballing student movement took to the streets for massive protests in 1973, it toppled the tyrant Thanom Kittikachorn and forced him into exile. When the palace allowed him to come back three years later — ostensibly to be ordained as a Buddhist monk but likely recalled by the government to help stem the spread of communism from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — the movement reconvened. This time, the King’s favor had turned against them, and the army and royalist militias were authorized to put down the unrest with lethal force.
Labeled as communists, student activists were slaughtered on the sports field, in hallways and in the elevators of Thammasat University, about a five-minute walk from the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The government says 46 students died on Oct. 6, 1976, though the toll is believed to have been far higher. Today, the killing field is a weed-strewn soccer pitch, around which homeless people nap on wooden benches with their shirts hiked up to their armpits in the scalding afternoon. There’s little sign of the site’s haunting history — just a small metal placard inscribed with a terse account of the uprising in 1973. No one has been held accountable for the atrocity, and talking about it is still taboo. “People are afraid that it could happen again, these things just keep repeating,” Netiwit tells TIME. “It’s actually a kind of scar on the people of Thailand.”
This dark moment in Thailand’s history shocked many into a long state of silence, but the extreme brutality of Bangkok’s version of Tiananmen Square also galvanized resistance. Last year, Netiwit organized an event at Chulalongkorn commemorating the 40th anniversary of the massacre. About 1,000 attended and more than 10,000 others watched an online live stream. Large-scale demonstrations have been rare since the coup, but this event — the first of its kind to publicly acknowledge the massacre — definitely constituted an act of protest.
Without elections, it’s hard to assess the scale of anti-junta sentiment in Thailand. The most outspoken objectors are either in prison or exile, while those who might have joined them are afraid to. Netiwit, for his part, draws inspiration and comfort from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Netiwit invited its best-known leader, Joshua Wong, to talk about fighting for democracy in Hong Kong at last year’s Thammasat commemoration, but Wong was stopped at Bangkok airport and deported after being detained for 12 hours — a move that would have pleased Beijing, which regards Wong as a troublemaker. Thai authorities told Wong he was “blacklisted,” and he ended up addressing the audience by Skype.
Netiwit has visited Wong twice in Hong Kong, where the pair discovered they have more in common than a slight physical resemblance. Both became activists while they were still in high school, crying foul against new education policies that to them seemed like brainwashing. (In Wong’s case it was “national education,” which Beijing tried to impose on Hong Kong schools but relented in the face of protests organized by Wong, then just 15.) Both have been detained for peaceful assembly and told to keep their mouths shut. And both are becoming outsiders in their own homelands.
“My views are basically the opposite of the government,” Netiwit tells TIME, “but slowly, more and more young people are starting to agree with me.”
—With video produced, shot and edited by Helen Regan / Bangkok