Thai student rallies protest dissolution of opposition party

TASSANEE VEJPONGSA and GRANT PECK
Pro-democracy students wave mobile phones with flashlights switched on, during a large rally at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Thailand's normally docile students have been holding large rallies around the country, triggered by a court ruling dissolving a popular opposition political party whose democracy-promoting policies had attracted substantial support among younger Thais. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

PATHUM THANI, Thailand (AP) — Thailand's normally docile students have been holding rallies around the country to express their discontent with the established political order.

The rare mass activism was triggered by a court ruling dissolving a popular opposition political party whose democracy-promoting policies had attracted substantial support among younger Thais.

As many as 2,000 students gathered Wednesday in the biggest demonstration so far, north of Bangkok at the main undergraduate campus of Thammasat University. Rallies have been held or are scheduled at at least 30 educational institutions.

Student protests of such breadth have not been seen in decades, but it is not clear if they will gain traction. They raise pressure on a government already accused of incompetence and failure to cope with an economic downturn.

"These protests are significant because they greatly raise the decibel level of organized opposition to the military-dominated coalition government in power," said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

Many at the Thammasat rally wore face masks, a form of protection against the new virus, as they carried placards lambasting the government. A musician who took the stage apologized to the crowd that fellow band members could not accompany him because they were playing at other protest venues.

Thammasat's in-town campus kicked off the campaign on Saturday, and prestigious Chulalongkorn University followed on Monday.

"This is a real organic movement that stems from students' frustration at injustice. And I think all these protests that we see are just the beginning, the beginning of a sign that people cannot take what's going in society anymore," said Panasuya Sithijirawattanakul, a spokeswoman for the Student Union of Thailand who helped organized Saturday's initial rally.

Last week, the Constitutional Court ordered the opposition Future Forward Party dissolved. The recently formed party won the third-highest number of seats in last year's general election with an anti-establishment stance that attracted younger voters. But those same positions antagonized Thailand's traditional ruling class, which is dominated by royalists and the military.

The court ruled that the party broke the election law by accepting a large loan from its leader. However, it is widely believed that the party was targeted for its popularity and for being critical of the government and the military. Its charismatic leaders were barred from holding political office for 10 years.

Discontent has been brewing since the army ousted an elected government in 2014, but protests then were limited to a small circle of students who braved repeated arrests.

Tight controls under military rule were lifted after last year's elections, but the prime minister remained the same as under the military regime, former army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha, who staged the 2014 military takeover.

"The protests are significant in that they show a growing dissatisfaction with the Prayuth regime among younger Thais," said Jacob Ricks, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. "A fair number of these students probably voted for Future Forward."

He noted that after the 2014 coup, gatherings of more than a few people were banned and the Future Forward Party did not exist.

"Now students have more freedom to protest, an organization to mobilize around -- the Future Forward Party's social media structures -- and emotional investment," he said in an e-mail interview.

Student organizer Panasuya said the protesters don't have specific demands because they have not yet coordinated with other universities.

“But now that we see others are thinking the same thing, we will reach out to others and come up with demands,” she said.

"I think we really have been fed up for many years now," she said. "And this anger goes beyond Future Forward's dissolution. It's like the junta had dumped oil on us and Future Forward's dissolution is the match that sparked the fire that is now spreading."

"I think this could be the beginning of a bigger movement," she added. "I can't guarantee that, but I think it could happen."

Ricks said Prime Minister Prayuth still holds the stronger hand.

"He can probably afford to ignore the protests for the time being as long as they don't move off campus and cause major disruptions," he said.

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Peck reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writer Preeyapa T. Khunsong in Bangkok contributed to this report.