Tens of thousands join anti-govt rally in Thai capital

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(Sept 19): Tens of thousands of people gathered near Bangkok’s Thammasat University campus for the biggest anti-government protest since the 2014 military coup.

Demonstrators assembled in the light rain, wearing masks and holding umbrellas, and moved from within the university grounds to a field nearby as crowds swelled. As many as 100,000 people were expected to join the rally, according to the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, the student-led group organizing the event, before the protest started.

The gathering proceeded despite a warning from the university last week that it wouldn’t allow protesters on the property. People of different ages sat on the lawns and cheered speakers’ calls for changes to the constitution and government.

One demonstrator, 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,” Somchai said.

Piyanuch Saengsawang, 70, said she joined the protest with two friends her age because “I’m worried about the future for my grandchildren.”

“Over the past decade, we see this country heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “The fight led by this generation gives us hope.”

Over the past months, the protest movement led by mostly students, has expanded, with various groups using digital spaces to set meetings and spread their demands in a style of organizing reminiscent of the leaderless flash mobs in Hong Kong and the U.S. The demonstrators are calling for changes in the constitution that would remove the military influence in politics and for a new, more democratic election.

The mounting protests present a challenge for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former army chief who led the 2014 coup and stayed in charge after a disputed election last year conducted under rules written by his military government. The premier has said the government was looking into possible amendment of the charter that was drafted by the junta ahead of last year’s vote.

“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 Prayuth’s regime,” said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the leaders of the Thammasat group. “We want the government to realize that our movement isn’t insignificant. Don’t think that we’re just students.”

Budget delay

Prayuth’s government is currently without a finance minister after the previous chief resigned less than a month into the job, and it’s 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 of 8.5% this year.

With the economy already weak, it’s unclear whether fiscal policy can step up to provide support, according to Tim Leelahaphan, an economist at Standard Chartered Pcl in Bangkok. The bank remains cautious on the economic outlook and expects a further cut in Bank of Thailand’s key interest rate, he wrote in a note.

The prime minister appealed to the protesters to consider the risk of virus infection the gathering could trigger. “Any major flare up of infections will lead to terrible consequences and even worse economic destruction, the likes of which we have never seen,” he said in televised comments Thursday.

Last month, the Thammasat student-led group made 10 demands, including a call for revoking the country’s strict lese-majeste laws that criminalize insults against top members of the royal family. The demonstrators are breaking deeply entrenched taboos in Thailand, where openly criticizing the monarchy can lead to long jail sentences.

Other demands include changing the constitution to allow criticism of the king, separating the monarch’s properties from the Crown Property Bureau, aligning the budget for the monarchy with economic conditions, banning the monarch from expressing political opinions and prohibiting the king from endorsing coups.

Since the protest movement began in July, 14 people have been arrested by police and later released on bail, according to data from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. At least 61 people faced charges for leading or participating in the protests, with some of them facing sedition charges which can lead to up to seven years in jail.