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2 Years Later, Democracy Activists Acquitted for 2018 Pattaya Rally

Overshadowed by new student movement, Ja Niew's New Democracy Group had faced prison for anti-junta protest

Sirawit “Ja Niew” Serithiwat, center, and other members of the New Democracy Group leave the Pattaya Provincial Court following their acquittal. (Photo: Pattaya Mail, with permission)
Sirawit “Ja Niew” Serithiwat, center, and other members of the New Democracy Group leave the Pattaya Provincial Court following their acquittal. (Photo: Pattaya Mail, with permission)

Even as student-protest leaders battle fresh rounds of legal harassment by the government, a court in Pattaya has acquitted 11 pÍro-democracy activists who started this decade’s battle with 2018 rallies against the junta that preceded it.

Before the rigged constitution, the sham election, the dissolution of opposition parites and the rise of the student-back pro-democracy movement, a small band of activists became the first to raise the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute in rallies across the country.

On March 4, 2018, Sirawit “Ja Niew” Serithiwat led his New Democracy Group to Pattaya for a beachfront rally. Even though it drew fewer than 100 people, he and 11 others were arrested and charged with violating the an order against political assemblies by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order, the junta that staged the 2014 military coup.

On Oct. 1, that episode came to a quiet, anti-climatic end when the Pattaya Appeal Court dismissed the charges against 11 of the defendants and fined Sirawit a mere 3,000 baht for holding the assembly without the proper permit.

Sirawit at the time was out on bail after being arrested for a similarly peaceful protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok in February 2018, In Pattaya, he decried Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s waffling on his promise of holding an election in February 2019, pointing out that the coup leader has broken election-date promises five times already.

Sirawit claimed the world was not seeing anything positive from the military government and it should give Thais a chance to elect their own leaders. The poll finally was.

The Pattaya gathering was part the “on tour” series of rallies under New Democracy’s Start-Up People offshoot movement. Sirawit, Wanchaloem Khunsaen and Chidapha Thanahatthachai were convicted by the Criminal Court of being the co-organizers.

They faced fines of to 10,000 baht and six months in jail, but the Appeal Court dismissed the charges against 11 protestors, including Wanchaloem and Chidapha, who had already paid 3,000 baht fines after the Criminal Court ruling. The government actually said it would give them refunds.

A 12th protestor charged at the time has since died.

The court assigned Sirawit the role of instigator and fined him 3,000 baht.

Sirawit grudgingly accepted the fine and decision, but said that he did notify Pattaya police at the time of the gathering by telephone. Sirawit said the government, still propped up by the military, cannot stop the social movement gaining momentum in Thailand now fueled by students demanding democracy. He said his group would join and support the new movement.

A version of this story first appeared in the Pattaya Mail, a Bangkok Herald partner.