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Student leader a rare voice of dissent in military-ruled Thailand

BANGKOK (Reuters) - In a country where dissenting voices have largely been quashed by the military junta, 20-year-old Thai student leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is emerging as one of few figures to speak out.

Anti-junta activist Netiwit Chotipatpaisal speaks during an interview with Reuters at an office in Bangkok, Thailand, May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

But he is pessimistic about the prospects of a broader revival in opposition nearly three years after the army seized power in Thailand in the name of ending political turmoil.

“Many activists are hopeless and depressed,” Netiwit told Reuters in an interview.

“The junta created an atmosphere of fear,” said Netiwit, recently elected to the student council of Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University.

Criticism of the junta is banned. So is contact with junta critics abroad. Activists, politicians and journalists are frequently detained. Several dissidents have been jailed under laws against insulting the monarchy.

Colonel Pirawat Saengthong from the Internal Security Operations Command, a military unit that deals with national security issues, said he was unable to comment on student groups and Netiwit specifically.

Netiwit’s refusal to follow a student custom of prostrating oneself in front of a statue of former King Rama V, Chulalongkorn University’s namesake, brought him to prominence as an anti-establishment figure last year.

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His stance also drew comparisons with Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong - youthful face of the anti-Beijing “Umbrella Movement” street protests in 2014.

Bearing a passing physical resemblance to Wong, the bespectacled Netiwit says he is flattered by the comparison and believes Thais could seek someone similar.

“They imagine some kind of heroic activist and Joshua Wong is one,” Netiwit said.

Netiwit was among student activists who invited Wong to speak on the anniversary of a bloody army crackdown on students in 1976. Wong was refused entry to Thailand and sent home.

Netiwit has written three books, including one arguing against military conscription - which he could face when he turns 21.

He has also opposed what he says is a decline in education standards under the junta, which has prioritised deference to authority and the monarchy in schools over academic excellence.

The junta now says an election will happen next year, but critics say a new constitution will enshrine military power for years to come.

The army took power after protests and street clashes between factions that have polarized Thailand for more than a decade: a military-backed Bangkok elite and supporters of ousted populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister in 2014.

Netiwit, detained briefly in 2015 after a protest on the coup’s anniversary, said he would rather avoid jail. But he would be prepared to lead a street movement if there was appetite.

“Many people now are bored with criticizing from Facebook,” said Netiwit, who has more than 80,000 followers on his public Facebook page. “I think I can give them some space to do what they want, to change.”

Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Robert Birsel