Pass it on

I have come to believe that young people should be in charge of just about everything. Universally and unreservedly, power should be passed on. I could be suffering from a Stockholm Syndrome as a result of living with the unpredictable torture and coercive control of my son’s truly terrible twos. But in between his biting and spitting, his love for life and awe of the natural world places him on a higher spiritual plane than me. The young are just much better than us.

A few weeks ago I got a text from an activist friend in Thailand “He has been taken to Bangkok Remand Prison. No Bail.” For those of you who have been reading this blog since it began in 2012 you might remember the story of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, the Thai democracy activist, now one of the few longstanding opposition leaders intact after half a century of fighting for human rights in Thailand. I worked with Somyot for a decade when he was a trade union organiser and me a trade union educator for a global union federation in the hot industrial zones around Bangkok, offering English lessons and friendship at the shrimp stands outside factory gates to the young workers of the largest multinational corporations in the world. A grim fairy tale landscape shaped by the global shift and our small important attempts to survive it.

Somyot was arrested by the military in 2012 and, after an initial release from a military prison after we raised international attention, was charged and found guilty of treason under Thailand’s infamous Lese Majeste law. Despite a sustained international campaign involving regional and international human rights networks, Amnesty, INGOs and trade unions, he was denied bail 15 times and went on to serve 7 years in prison, working as the prison librarian and organising the many migrants and muslims in Thailand’s penal system. An educator activist of the old internationalist school. 

Somyot was arrested two weeks ago then released, facing a sustained process of re-arrest and imprisonment as a result of joining the recent democracy demonstrations in Thailand. In a way there is nothing surprising about this – Lese Majeste has been used over the last 100 years of repression to place any opposition in the position of offence against the once deified royal family. That the hundreds of activists who have disappeared or been arrested  have committed no crime apart from opposing military rule is just one of those things about Thailand that causes burst blood vessels and goes some way to explain the dominance of buddhist practice. 

The world is a different place from ten years ago when cyber-campaigning by established human rights systems meant something because they had political credibility and power. Now the institutions of human rights have been degraded, attention spread too thinly, funding cut in waves of protectionism and the old progressive guard now retired or defeated. Our internationalist phone books are now out of date. The additional spectre of surveillance capitalism and the systems that allow political control means that only the underground and mercurial world of activist networks using encrypted messaging and locally organised responses remain.  Messy and confusing as it might look from the outside, it’s what we’ve got.  

But there is also another difference, that tens of thousands of young people for the first time have been protesting demanding political reform. Student activists, clustered around Thammasat University, organising demonstrations with spontaneous speakers, and fluid often women leadership, they exhibit a new wave of activism in Thailand one which has been effective in protecting the senior figures like Somyot. 

There’s a striking stoicism within established activists about what is required to move from taking a democratic position to achieving it. From the anarchosyndicalists organising in the former soviet union of the 1990s to the trade unionists of Colombia, people say it will take the next generations to make the change they have been preparing for. The combination of diluted transgenerational memories of living under repression and the insistence on lives that can be lived demanded by them pushing us all towards a very different political future. 

As impossible as it might sound in the current political climate, all of us are in a position to pass on privilege to those who come after us. Even if it just means stepping aside, empowering them is our only way of moving forward together.

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