EDITORIAL: Why student activism should be encouraged

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Barring any form of extremism, our social progress depends on diverse ideas and open debate.

A major social-media topic of late has to do with the new president of Chulalongkorn University’s student council, and opinions have been extremely divided. The focus has shifted between Netiwit Chotiphatpahisal’s past actions and statements and what he might be able to accomplish in the future. It must be said that student activism is not currently as forthright as it once was, but its relevance in politics remains, especially at a time when voices from both sides of Thailand’s political divide are heard with suspicion.

University figures have played significant roles in this political polarity – and no surprise, since most academics and student activists are the water to the oil of military autocracy, fundamentally unable to blend. Since the 2014 coup there has been an uneasy peace on the streets, but ideological skirmishes have been unrelenting. Online debate between opponents and supporters of the military-led government has been fierce. 

The new student president at Chulalongkorn is an ideological firebrand representing one camp in the national divide. To be fair to him, though, few Thais are strictly neutral on the key political issues, and there is no rule requiring a student-body president to be politically neutral.

So the young man’s thinking can be opposed, but his installation as student council president should not be. To accept his election 0is to accept the importance of free thinking, and only through freedom of thought can different proposals be discussed, debated and ultimately serve as catalysts for new and hopefully better ideas. A truly advanced political system needs such discourse. 

The student activists of the 1970s have gone their separate ways, and have not necessarily adhered to the same ideological mindset. Views on democracy, the military, the United States, China, Russia and other divisive subjects have become much more diverse in recent years.

Yesterday’s anti-American activists might now be looking for US help in fostering a return to civilian rule. China and Russia, whose stringent forms of socialism attracted Thai activists in the past, are no longer regarded with the same affection.

Our divided society, scarred by ideological discrepancies and overt hypocrisy, has spared no champion of either side. Rights are invoked only when the subject suits a particular agenda. Efforts at reconciliation are mocked. Perceptions of freedom are taken to extremes. Among questions posed with a sneer to today’s student activists is where they were when anti-government protesters were being killed while the country was still under civilian rule.

No ideology is set in stone, but flexibility in thought doesn’t justify efforts to silence student activism. If the powers-that-be and students were to share the exact same beliefs, social progress would come to a halt. The bottom line is that Thai society is better served when divergent ideas can be openly debated – as long as they do not promote hatred of or violence against the innocent.

Student activism is a necessary part of social evolution. All we ask is that Netiwit and everyone else seeking to play a role in the ongoing political crisis does so with integrity and care, and is able to differentiate between valid ideology and self-serving power plays by vested interests. In stifling times, fresh air is most welcome, whatever the source. 


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