•BANGKOK • Rival protest groups rallied in and around the Thai capital yesterday, raising the political temperature amid almost daily anti-government student protests nationwide and stirring fears of a return to street violence.
Thailand was roiled for more than a decade by sporadic street clashes between conservatives and those loyal to former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. There have been two military coups in the past 15 years, the last led by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014.
Dozens of supporters rallied in front of Parliament House yesterday in support of Mr Prayut’s government. Thousands later joined an anti-government demonstration at Thammasat University on the outskirts of Bangkok, the largest such protest by students, challenging the government and conservative royalist establishment.
In a sign of a more coordinated opposition to the students, a former nationalist activist, Mr Sumet Trakulwoonnoo, 46, announced a new pro-government group, the Coordination Centre of Vocational Students for the Protection of National Institutions.
“A group of people are instigating young minors to come out and attack the military, the government and also involving the monarchy, and this could lead to violence and destruction of our system of governance and our culture,” Mr Sumet told reporters at the rally.
“We’re setting up to remind youth groups, parents, teachers and officials about the danger to the nation from these people who are instigating youth to become godless and obsessed with Western culture, do drugs and hate their parents and teachers.”
The anti-government protesters have made a growing number of veiled references to the monarchy, a highly sensitive topic, and one speaker at a recent rally called for its reform.
The students accused the pro-government demonstrators of trying to create confrontation which could lead to another military intervention. “They staged a counter-protest today to create a condition that could lead us to another coup,” Maha Sarakham University student activist Nick Thanawit told the crowd yesterday. “We do not want this and will oppose it.”
Mr Prayut has said the government is creating a way for political groups to express their views but he has voiced concern about confrontation.
The reaction from the authorities to the anti-government protests has been limited but two activists were arrested last Friday.