Growing up, growing old as an activist: challenges facing ‘the new generation’

Porntip ‘Kolf’ Mankhong, a former political prisoner, looks back at her more-than-a-decade of activism, arguing that the rise of ‘heroism’ among student activists is threatening solidarity and participation in Thailand’s democracy movement. Prontip gave this speech at the 2017 Asia Youth Leadership Forum For Democracy in Seoul.
 
I’m lucky to have been an activist since the age of 16; it means I got to know myself early. I had time to try many things, to make mistakes and learn from them too. It has been almost 13 years already. I have watched people come and go.
 
Many young activists in Thailand view themselves as superheroes fighting the junta, carrying on their shoulders public hopes and expectations. They forget to make their families understand what they are doing, and even forget to understand their own motivations.
 
People outside the movement can make you feel like a hero. They treat you like a superstar and let you live in their dreams, be their representative, because they don’t do it themselves. But when you falter, they will quickly find a new star to follow.
 
Even I have to constantly check myself when other people treat me like a ‘superhero’. I often ask myself, “What do I want? What do other people want?”
 
On the other hand, those who feel that they are heroes of the movement sometimes feel they don’t need to listen to anyone. Discussion is difficult. In the end, this could undermine democracy rather than promote it.
 
This is not to blame anyone, but being built up as a hero can be dangerous sometimes. Especially so, now that we have Facebook and social media. Social media can help democracy, but be aware that “followers” are far from activists themselves.
 
This is the challenge: to change followers who “click like” to an effective and productive movement for social change.
 
Honestly, for me the Thai student movement lacks solidarity. We know that a movement led by individual leaders only makes it easier for the junta to get rid of us. When the junta arrests student leaders, we have to use almost all our resources and energy in the courts, and in campaigning to free our friends. 
 
Starting over and over again makes us fearful, tired and hopeless. We lose energy to move forward.
 
So we shouldn't leave leadership or activism to a single person. It has to be teamwork and we should give opportunities to youths and encourage new faces to take part in the process too. Even Pai Daodin is not a hero, and the awards he has received should be symbolic of the many other people fighting, who are in jail for fighting — those who no one knows, who have no support, money or awards.
 
Students usually stop their activism when they finish their degrees. The four years they give is not enough to change anything. As such, we should start working with youths as early as possible.
 
Most activists I know are dealing with issues within their families, or involving someone close to them. For us who want to pass on our movement, we must help youths handle their personal development too. We shouldn’t bring them into the movement at the same time they have family problems. Families should know and understand what their children are fighting for.
 
But in the end, I can only hope, because everything rests with the new generation. I’m old already. The future is yours. You are the future.
 
 
 
Prontip ‘Kolf’ Mankhong (Photo from DMC Post)