BANGKOK • Thailand’s pro-democracy movement gathered steam in the capital yesterday, defying the authorities who recently arrested activists and have threatened to detain more.
The crowd, estimated by the police to be at least 10,000-strong, swarmed the busy intersection around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument yesterday afternoon, and later cheered the arrival of prominent student leader Parit Chiwarak, who is out on bail after being charged for sedition.
The police say arrest warrants have been issued for a further 12 protest leaders.
The movement’s demands for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s administration, a new Constitution and an end to harassing opposition activists have received widespread support. Some students have also called for reform of the monarchy – once a taboo subject.
“We want a new election and a new Parliament from the people,” student activist Patsalawalee Tanakitwiboonpon, 24, told the cheering crowd at the Democracy Monument. “Lastly, our dream is to have a monarchy which is truly under the Constitution.”
The protesters, partly inspired by the Hong Kong democracy movement, claim to be leaderless and have relied mostly on social media campaigns to draw support across the country.
The hashtags “Give a deadline to dictatorship” and “Tag your friends to protest” started trending early yesterday on Twitter in Thailand.
Mr Prayut won elections last year that the opposition says were held under rules to ensure that he kept power.
The most vocal opposition party was subsequently banned.
Anger has been further fuelled by claims of corruption, the arrest of student leaders over earlier protests and the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.
Students have presented 10 reforms they seek to the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn – including curbing his powers over the Constitution, the royal fortune and the armed forces.
Thailand’s lese majeste law sets a penalty of up to 15 years for criticising the monarchy, but Mr Prayut has said the King requested that it not be used for now.
Near the anti-government protest site, several dozen royalists also demonstrated, waving national flags and holding up gold-framed portraits of the King.
“I don’t care if they protest against the government but they cannot touch the monarchy,” said Mr Sumet Trakulwoonnoo, a leader of the royalist group Coordination Centre of Vocational Students for the Protection of National Institutions.
Last Thursday, Mr Prayut said the protesters’ demands were unacceptable for the country’s majority.
He struck a more conciliatory tone later, appealing for unity and saying the “future belongs to the young”.
Before the 2014 coup, Bangkok was roiled for more than a decade by often violent clashes between “yellow shirt” royalist protesters and rival “red shirts” loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but the new wave of protests has not been violent so far.
“I am old now and can never achieve my goal,” said former red shirt Ueng Poontawee, 62.
“Now there are new faces. I am very happy they came out.”
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE