Thai democracy movement gathers for protest after PM snub

Thanaporn PROMYAMYAI and Dene-Hern CHEN
·3 min read
Protesters regard Prayut's hold on power as illegitimate

Thai democracy movement gathers for protest after PM snub

Protesters regard Prayut's hold on power as illegitimate

Thousands gathered Sunday at a major Bangkok intersection to renew calls for Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha to resign, after he ignored a deadline to step down set by protesters who have issued unprecedented challenges to the regime.

The former military chief, who staged a 2014 coup, is facing pressure from a student-led pro-democracy movement that has organised massive demonstrations for months.

They regard his hold on power -- extended after last year's widely disputed elections -- as illegitimate and on Wednesday gave him three days to step down.

After the deadline came and went, thousands gathered at downtown Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection, surrounded by gleaming shopping malls and watched by traffic police.

"If Prayut insists on not quitting, we will keep insisting on coming out to oust him," said organiser Jatupat "Pai" Boonpattararaksa, who had called for the protest the night before.

He reaffirmed the movement's three core demands -- Prayut's resignation; a rewrite of the 2017 military-scripted constitution; and for authorities to "stop harassing" political opponents.

The gathering drew a diverse crowd -- including drag queens in full regalia, young people in hard hats ready for a police crackdown, and older protesters worried about Thailand's freefalling economy. 

"I want Prayut to think as a citizen rather than as a prime minister," said 43-year-old Nuch. "The economy is really bad -- since he cannot solve the problem, he should resign and let someone else do it."

Despite the grievances, there was a festive atmosphere as protesters sang songs and bought caps emblazoned with the three-fingered salute -- a democracy symbol borrowed from the popular "Hunger Games" films. 

The surrounding roads were closed, with vocational students stationed near the barricades to search protesters -- a sign of worry of potential violence -- before the demonstration's 9:30 PM (1430 GMT) end.

Prayut remained resolute Saturday while attending a prayer ceremony for the country at a historic Bangkok temple, saying "all problems can be solved" through compromise.

He told reporters he "won't quit".

The movement is largely leaderless though the different groups are united in demanding an overhaul of Prayut's government.

Some have issued controversial calls for reform to the kingdom's unassailable monarchy, questioning the role of King Maha Vajiralongkorn -- once a taboo act due to draconian royal defamation laws.

- Charm offensive -

The monarch has been back in Thailand for the past week and a half to commemorate a Buddhist holiday and the death of his late father Bhumibol Adulyadej.

He has not commented on the demonstrations, despite tension in Bangkok as protesters grow bolder in their challenge to the royal institution.

But the king has made rare public visits with his supporters waiting outside the palace -- a charm offensive for an army of local and international media.

On Friday, he broke with royal protocol to praise a man who had held up a portrait of the king's parents at a pro-democracy rally.

Following the interaction, that quote trended as a hashtag on Twitter in Thailand.

Prayut had initially imposed emergency measures banning gatherings of more than four, but lifted them a week later when they failed to stop tens of thousands showing up to guerrilla demonstrations across the capital.

Scores of activists and protesters have been arrested, with several facing serious charges such as sedition. 

Over the weekend, prominent leaders Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, and Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul -- three figures who have consistently called for royal reform -- were denied bail.

Dozens of royalist supporters gathered outside the parliament Sunday afternoon to protest against the students, a day before a special parliamentary session was set to convene for MPs to thrash out ways to reduce tensions.  

Thais abroad have also held demonstrations in solidarity with the student movement, with some gathering in Tokyo Sunday waving the three-finger salute, while protesters in Seoul held signs that said "Restore power to the people". 

tp-dhc/je/leg