Prominent Thai democracy activist arrested ahead of major protest planned for Sunday

Parit Chiwarak (centre) at the police station in Bangkok, on Aug 14, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS, AFP) - Thai authorities arrested a student leader on Friday (Aug 14) over an anti-government protest last month, police said, just a few days before a big demonstration scheduled for Sunday (Aug 16).

Student groups have rallied almost daily around the country since July 18, calling for an end to military influence over Thai politics after a disputed election last year kept junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister five years after he first took power in a 2014 army coup.

Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, 22, was arrested on the outskirts of Bangkok while travelling to a protest, a video posted on his Facebook page showed.

"I would like to invite you to go to the investigating officers responsible for this case," said a man who identified himself as a member of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police in the video, citing a court's arrest warrant before at least four other men physically carried Parit into a car.

The video was apparently shot by a friend of Parit's and posted to his page.

"We can hold him for 48 hours for questioning," Police Major-General Somprasong Yentuam, deputy Bangkok police chief, told reporters.

"Once we are done, we will take him to a court to request for pre-trial detention," he said.

Somprasong said Parit will be charged for breaching internal security by "raising unrest and disaffection", as well as for breaching coronavirus regulations banning public gatherings by helping organise a demonstration on July 18.

Human Rights Watch said the charges should be dropped and he should be immediately released.

Police on Friday also asked a court to revoke the bail for human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, 35 and student activist Panupong Jadnok, 23, whom they arrested on the same charges as Parit last week, Human Rights Watch said.

Prime Minister Prayuth has appealed for unity in light of the student-led protests, and said the government has been restrained with the protesters.

The student protest groups plan to stage a large protest on Sunday to intensify their demand to reform the military-backed constitution and call for new elections.

The protesters, inspired by the Hong Kong democracy movement, have tried to remain leaderless, relying on social media campaigns to spread news about their rallies.

Thailand has been locked in a cycle of coups and street protests for decades, with the latest putsch in 2014 staged by Mr Prayut.

Demonstrators are now calling for a rewrite of the military-scripted 2017 constitution, which they say tipped the scales in favour of Mr Prayut's military-aligned party in last year's election.

Coronavirus lockdowns have this year seen Thailand enter a downward economic spiral that has brought widespread discontent to the surface.

Mr Prayut on Thursday called for unity and urged the kingdom to "say no to the politics of hate" in a televised address.

He also poured scorn on the protesters' demands, saying they are without support from much of the country and are "risky".

On Monday, one rally saw thousands listening to speakers calling for a frank discussion of the royal family's role and an end to a law protecting the unassailable institution.

The notorious "112" law can see those convicted sentenced to up to 15 years in jail for each charge.

The super-rich royal family, which commands an estimated fortune of up to US$60 billion (S$82 billion), sits at the apex of Thai power, supported by a powerful military and the country's elite billionaire class.

More than 140 university lecturers from across the kingdom this week showed their support for the protest movement by signing a petition saying the demands of the demonstrators were "based on the basic principles of democracy".

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