Thai protesters gather for biggest pro-democracy rally this year

The student-led movement is calling for fresh elections under a new constitution and curbs on the monarchy

Pro-democracy activists raise a three-fingers salute, a symbol of resistance during a protest at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Protesters gathered Saturday in Bangkok for the most ambitious rally so far in a pro-democracy campaign that has shaken up the government and Thailand's conservative establishment. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
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Protesters gathered Saturday in Bangkok for the most ambitious rally so far in a pro-democracy campaign that has shaken up the government and Thailand's conservative establishment.

Organisers predicted as many as 50,000 would show up and march over two days in an area of the capital historically associated with political protests. An estimated 10,000 people turned out for the last major rally on August 16, and this time, opposition political parties are expected to join and mobilise supporters from other provinces.

Demonstrators ignored a Thursday night plea from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to cancel the event, which he said risked spreading the coronavirus and derailing recovery of the battered economy.

The core demands declared by the protesters in July were the dissolution of parliament with fresh elections, a new constitution and an end to intimidation of political activists.

They believe Mr Prayuth, who as then-army commander led a 2014 coup toppling an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because the laws had been changed to favour a pro-military party. A constitution promulgated under military rule is likewise undemocratic, they charge.

Parit Chiwarak, a pro-democracy student, one of the leaders of Thailand's recent anti-government protests attends a mass rally to call for the ouster of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government and reforms in the monarchy, in Bangkok, Thailand, September 19, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Parit Chiwarak, one of the student leaders of Thailand's recent anti-government protests, attends a rally in Bangkok on September 19, 2020. Reuters

The mostly student activists raised the stakes dramatically during an August 10 rally by issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for reforming the monarchy. Their demands seek to limit the king’s powers, establish tighter controls on palace finances and allow open discussion of the monarchy.

Their boldness was virtually unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand, and any criticism is normally kept private. A lese majeste law calls for a prison sentence of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of defaming the royal institution.

Too young to have been caught up in the sometimes violent partisan political battles that roiled Thailand a decade ago, “the students have been doing it mostly by themselves, producing some radical demands and refreshingly different protests," said Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus of the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar.

“This is why they look and act differently and why they are so confounding for the regime,” he said. “What the regime and its supporters see is relatively well-off kids turned against them and this confounds them.”

At least 8,000 police are reportedly being deployed for the weekend protest, and prospects for confrontations appear high. Protest organisers have said they wouldl use Thammasat University and the adjacent field known as Sanam Luang as the rally venue, but so far they have been denied permission to do so.

Arrests on charges including sedition for earlier actions have failed to faze the young activists.

“They appear fed up with the regime, its tactics of threat and charging, and it is clear that even among the young, they have thought about this and prepared for some of their leaders to be taken away,” said Mr Hewison.

Students launched the protest movement in February, with rallies at universities around the country in reaction to a court ruling dissolving the popular Future Forward Party, and banning its leaders from political activity for 10 years.

The party won the third-highest number of seats in last year’s general election with an anti-establishment stance that attracted younger voters, and it is widely seen as being targeted for its popularity and for being critical of the government and the military.

But public protests were suspended in March when Thailand had its first major outbreaks of the coronavirus and the government declared a state of emergency to cope with it. The emergency decree is still in effect, and critics allege it is used to curb dissent.

Royalists have expressed shock at the students’ talk about the monarchy. Army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong indirectly but harshly criticised the protesters, declaring in a speech to military cadets that “Covid-19 can be cured ... but the disease that cannot be cured is the hatred of the nation.”

But actual blowback so far has been minor, with only half-hearted organising efforts by largely ageing royalists.