Asia

Thai protesters kick off weekend of rallies

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

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

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Protests have been building since mid-July to call for the removal of the government, a new constitution and elections. They have also broken a long-standing taboo by criticising the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Police said at least 5,000 people had gathered at the campus of Thammasat University, long seen as a hotbed of opposition to the military and royalist establishment, and scene of a massacre of protesters in 1976.

Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul (centre left) and activist Panupong "Mike" Jadnok (centre right) react outside the gate before protesters broke through to hold a rally at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sep 19, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

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!"

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"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.

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,” Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer who has emerged as a leading figure in the protest movement, said on Twitter.

Protesters gather under umbrellas to keep off the rain during a rally at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sep 19, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

Sep 19 is the anniversary of the coup against the populist then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Among the protesters were many of his red shirt followers, veterans of clashes a decade ago with pro-establishment yellow shirts.

“Im here to fight for the future of my children and grandchildren. I hope that by the time I die, they will become free,” said 68-year-old Tasawan Suebthai, a redshirt with amulets round her neck to ward off bullets.

So far the protests have been peaceful. The biggest to date drew more than 10,000 people last month, but organisers expect more this time.

ESTABLISHMENT UNDER FIRE

Thai politics has for years been marked by challenges to the royalist and military establishment by politicians backed by poor urban and rural voters, and more recently by the student protesters.

The military, which proclaims itself the defender of the country's core institutions, in particular the monarchy, has stepped in to overthrow civilian governments numerous times, most recently in 2014, citing the need to maintain stability.

Prayuth has said the government would allow protests as a form of free speech but that demands for reform of the monarchy were not acceptable.

"We are fighting to put the monarchy in the right place, not to abolish it," one protest leader, Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, told the crowd.

A 20-year-old student, who gave her name only as Waan for fear of reprisals, said it was time to reform the monarchy. "Its a problem thats been swept under the rug for so long. This must end right here.”

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.

READ: Thai PM pledges to maintain peace during planned anti-government protest

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