Largest anti-coup rally as Thais mark two years of army takeover

Anti coup d'etat demonstrators carry a banner promoting to vote "no" at a referendum on a junta-backed draft constitution in Bangkok, on May 22, 2016.
Anti coup d'etat demonstrators carry a banner promoting to vote "no" at a referendum on a junta-backed draft constitution in Bangkok, on May 22, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Hundreds of protesters on Sunday (May 22) marked the second anniversary of Thailand's latest coup with song, dance, speeches and pro-democracy banners, in the largest show of dissent since the military toppled an elected government.

Under the watch of dozens of police officers, activists young and old gathered peacefully at Bangkok's Democracy Monument as discontent with the junta resurfaces after two years of relative quiet enforced by the army.

Since their May 22, 2014 power grab, the military has banned all political protest and ramped up prosecutions under draconian sedition and royal defamation laws.

But unhappiness with the coup-makers has mounted across the deep political divide as the economy continues to struggle.

"Today is another year we are standing here to make our voices heard louder to the people that administer this country and who we do not accept," student leader Rangsiman Rome told AFP.

But with the military firmly in control of the country, there is no immediate sense of a return to the mass demonstrations that marked Thailand's turbulent last decade.

Earlier, Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted by the military's 12th successful putsch since 1932, said the country was "suffering" under army rule.

 

"Today is the 2nd anniversary of the coup d'etat that removed my government from office," Yingluck said in a Facebook post uploaded on Sunday morning.

"It was the day that the people's rights and freedom were taken away."

Yingluck was Thailand's first female prime minister and the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also toppled in a 2006 coup backed by the royalist establishment.

They despise the clan, accusing Thaksin of poisoning the country with populist and corrupt policies.

But the Shinawatras remain wildly popular among Thailand's rural and urban working class, especially in the north and east, who praise the family for improving the lot of the poor after decades of neglect by a Bangkok-based elite.

Former army chief turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha says the coup was necessary to end more than a decade of political chaos and street protests.

But critics say the takeover was simply the latest attempt to ensure the Shinawatras are excluded from power.

In her statement, Yingluck said Thais are "suffering" as the economy limps along and questioned whether the junta had made good on a vow to heal the political divide.

She urged the junta to swiftly return "the basic rights and freedom that will allow the people to once again choose their own destiny".

Yingluck was retroactively impeached by the military following their takeover and is on trial for negligence, a charge that could see her jailed for up to ten years.

The military has promised to hold elections in the summer of 2017 but previous election pledges have slipped.

A controversial new junta-crafted constitution will be put to a referendum in August.

Last week the military warned that any rejection of it might result in elections being further delayed.

Analysts say Thailand's political troubles are exacerbated by the failing health of its 88-year-old monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej as competing elites jostle for power ahead of the succession.