Thai PM Prayut faces headwinds as protests add to economic woes

DPM: Boosting cash handouts, hastening govt spending the way to avoid economic slump

Protesters holding their mobile phones aloft, as they took part in a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok yesterday. They are demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy, removal of the government and fresh polls. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Protesters holding their mobile phones aloft, as they took part in a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok yesterday. They are demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy, removal of the government and fresh polls. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: Anti-government protesters, led by activist Panupong Jadnok (centre), breaking through a gate at Thammasat University in Bangkok yesterday. Left: Student Union of Thailand spokesman Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (centre) speaking via a loudspea
Anti-government protesters, led by activist Panupong Jadnok (centre), breaking through a gate at Thammasat University in Bangkok yesterday.
Protesters holding their mobile phones aloft, as they took part in a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok yesterday. They are demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy, removal of the government and fresh polls. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Student Union of Thailand spokesman Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (centre) speaking via a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, as she and other protesters arrive for a rally at Thammasat University.

BANGKOK • Wearing masks and holding umbrellas amid the light rain, thousands of Thai protesters gathered at a field next to the Grand Palace have the same message demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy, removal of the government and fresh polls.

The mass gathering reflected the fast-growing movement led by university students.

"Down with feudalism, long live the people," was one of their chants yesterday.

The protests have been building since mid-July.

The organisers have broken a long-standing taboo by criticising the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is protected by strict lese majeste law.

The King sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by the kingdom's military and billionaire clans, and commands a fortune estimated to be worth up to US$60 billion (S$81.6 billion).

The pro-royalist coalition government is led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

"Our hope is to spread our message and communicate to people why we need to reform the monarchy, why we need to get rid of the Prayut regime," said Ms Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the leaders of the Thammasat group.

"We want the government to realise that our movement isn't insignificant. Don't think that we're just students."

One demonstrator, Mr Somchai Weaingkum, said his father had accompanied him to the rally, and had brought him to protests in 2010 when he was 15 years old.

"We want a full democracy, not just a pretend one," Mr Somchai said.

 
 
 

The mounting protests present a challenge for Mr Prayut, a former army chief who stayed in charge after a disputed election last year conducted under rules written by his military government.

His government is currently without a finance minister after the previous chief resigned less than a month into the job, and it is facing a two-week delay in its fiscal year 2021 budget amid slow stimulus spending.

The Thai economy, heavily reliant on trade and tourism, is on course for its deepest ever annual contraction this year.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow said that Thailand may avoid its worst economic performance by boosting cash handouts to pandemic-hit citizens and accelerating government spending in the final quarter.

South-east Asia's second-largest economy may shrink less with the help of various stimulus measures, and barring a major second wave of coronavirus infections, Mr Supattanapong said, in an interview last Thursday with Bloomberg.

The government expects total spending of about 100 billion baht (S$4.4 billion) under its co-pay programmes next quarter to revive domestic demand, he said.

"The money from the stimulus measures that will come out in the fourth quarter should help support the economy and curb a sharp (gross domestic product) contraction," Mr Supattanapong said.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2020, with the headline 'Thai PM Prayut faces headwinds as protests add to economic woes'. Subscribe