'Prayut get out': Thousands rally in Bangkok against Thai government

VIDEO: REUTERS
Pro-democracy activists are seen during a rally in Bangkok on Sept 19, 2020.
Pro-democracy activists are seen during a rally in Bangkok on Sept 19, 2020.PHOTO: AFP
Anti-government protesters arriving for a pro-democracy rally at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sept 19, 2020.
Anti-government protesters arriving for a pro-democracy rally at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sept 19, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP, REUTERS) - Thousands of protesters in Thailand’s capital demonstrated against the government of former coup leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Saturday (Sept 19), with many also demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy. 

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

Thailand has seen near-daily gatherings of youth-led groups since mid-July demanding the resignation of Mr Prayut, the former army chief behind the 2014 coup, and a complete overhaul of his administration.

Some are also demanding reforms to the kingdom's ultra-wealthy and powerful monarchy - a once-taboo topic in Thailand due to its tough royal defamation laws.

The burgeoning movement, partly inspired by Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, remains largely leaderless.

But the weekend's demonstration is organised by students of Bangkok's Thammasat University - a group that has been among the most vocal about the royal family's role in Thailand.

A crowd of several hundred gathered before noon at the locked gates of the university, demanding to be let in.

Protesters chanted "Down with dictatorship, long live democracy!" and "Prayut get out!"

"If you don't open, we will break in," protesters yelled, before forcing the gates open - despite student leaders calling for calm - allowing hundreds to flow into the campus.



Protesters chanted "Down with dictatorship, long live democracy!" and "Prayut get out!" PHOTO: AFP

Under light rain, protesters spilled onto Sanam Luang, a public space opposite the Grand Palace where state ceremonies are traditionally held. 

"Today the people will demand back their power," Mr Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer who has emerged as a leading figure in the protest movement, said on Twitter. 

On Sunday, demonstrators are expected to march to the nearby Government House - a move authorities have warned against.

 
 

The show of force is expected to be the largest since the 2014 coup - student activists are hoping for a turnout of more than 50,000 supporters.

Police said some 10,000 officers would be deployed around the area.

FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH?

A cycle of violent protests and coups has long plagued Thailand, with the arch-royalist military stepping in to stage more than a dozen putsches since the end of royal absolutism in 1932.

The latest wave of student-led demonstrations has largely been peaceful.

But unprecedented calls from some protesters for frank discussions about the monarchy have sent shockwaves through the kingdom.

 
 

King Maha Vajiralongkorn 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$81.54 billion).

The student demands include greater accounting of the palace's finances, the abolition of royal defamation laws and a call for the king to remain outside of politics.

They also want a rewrite of the 2017 military-scripted constitution, which they say tilted last year's election in Mr Prayut's favour, and for the government to stop "harassing" political opponents.



The weekend's demonstration is organised by students of Bangkok's Thammasat University - a group that has been among the most vocal about the royal family's role in Thailand. PHOTO: REUTERS

So far, authorities have arrested more than two dozen activists, charging them with sedition before releasing them on bail.

The weekend demonstrations will prove a test for the pro-democracy movement, analysts say, which has gained momentum online thanks to the students' savvy use of social media.

"A critical mass would send a clear message that the protesters are a force to be reckoned with," said Associate Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.

 
 

Mr Prayut has warned that Thailand could be "engulfed in flames" if the movement goes too far.

But he vowed that the authorities would use "soft measures" on the protesters "because they are children".

The top-trending hashtag on Thai Twitter late Friday was "Sept 19, we take back the power of the people".

Around the world, Thais are expected to gather in solidarity, with weekend protests planned in a dozen countries, including Germany, Australia and the United States.