Marking his return to the pro-democracy movement, Sirawith
Marking his return to the pro-democracy movement, Sirawith "Ja Niew" Serithiwat speaks to young students at Bangkok's Kasertsart intersection Monday.

Three weeks ago, Sirawith Serithiwat stood on the steps of the Pattaya Provincial Courthouse, closing a chapter in the fight for democracy being waged by the country’s youth and looking to start writing another.

Known better by his nickname, Ja Niew, Sirawith had just been acquitted by appellate court judges for a March 2018 protest in Pattaya by his former Start-Up People group.

He’d been fined 3,000 baht for staging a small rally on the Chonburi beach without a permit, but the serious charges of flouting an decree against political gatherings imposed by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta that staged the 2014 coup, were dropped. No reason for the acquittal was released publicly.

Years before the teenage college girls, high-schoolers in uniforms and a new crop of university students launched this fall’s assault on Thailand’s military-backed government, Sirawith had been the one leading Thammasat University activists against the junta. In the years between the May 2014 putsch and 2019’s military-rigged elections, Ja Niew’s New Democracy Group was the movement parrying with coup leader and now Prime Minister Payut Chan-o-cha.

It was a more-dangerous time for student activists. A ban of assemblies of more than five people and all political activities were enforced by soldiers on the streets. While this month’s Bangkok emergency decree also outlaws political gatherings of five ore more, Sirawith and his comrades had more to worry about than water cannons. Violence was part of the army’s standard playbook against anti-junta dissent.

That violence continued even after March 2019’s military-choreographed election, which installed Prayut’s Palang Patcharath in power and neutered any real opposition.

In two attacks just three weeks apart last summer, Sirawith was ambushed by “men in black”, their faces hidden by dark motorcycle helmets and their gloved hands wielding metal bars and baseball bats. The first attack put Sirawith in the hospital. The second nearly killed him, with assailants bringing down bats on his face, shattering Sirawith’s nose and blinding one eye for months.

Sirawith and New Democracy actually had been pulling back from the spotlight since 2018, but the near-death experience pushed Sirawith to surrender the mantle of Thailand’s leader of student-led protests.

But, on Oct. 1, after seeing the last of the dozen-plus criminal cases against him resolved, Sirawith in Pattaya told reporters it was time for him to return to the stage.

He did just that tonight outside Kasertsart University in North Bangkok on the sixth consecutive day of large protests by the students that have followed New Democracy.

The Free People Movement, which like Sirawith’s campaign began on Bangkok’s university campuses, has been left largely leaderless over the past week following nearly four dozen arrests of its top organizers. Anonymous social media posts announce where protestors should go each day but, once the youths arrive, they find the stage devoid of senior leaders and speechmakers.

On Monday night, like a returning hero or even a wayward older brother, it was Sirawith that grabbed the microphone, extolling “the kids” for what they have accomplished so far and imploring them to carry on, all the while educating the new generation on the struggles of those like him who came before and what Prayut is both capable of and willing to do to keep his grasp on power.

“The world is not seeing anything positive from the military government,” he said. “Real democracy would allow all Thais a chance to elect their own leaders.”

The students sat in that intersection with rapt attention. But his stories also opened eyes, especially for those not subjected to the chemical-laced water cannons at Friday’s Pathumwan protest.