As Thailand faces an unprecedented economic turmoil due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of mainly young Thai protesters converged on Saturday, July 18, at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument calling for government to resign.
Scuffles broke out as protesters tipped over metal barriers and forced their way through police lines to hold a noisy rally at the memorial, which was built to mark the 1932 revolution that established a constitutional monarchy.
The crowd of students sang vitriolic rap songs and waved placards denouncing the administration of former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha and calling for the abolition of Thailand’s strict royal defamation law.
With the economy in freefall, anger is boiling against a government stacked with elderly former generals and supporters of the royalist establishment.
“The government doesn’t care about us, so either we come out or we lose anyway,” said an 18-year-old student called Sang, giving one name only.
“The laws protect the rich and leave the people with nothing.”
Placards saying “end 112” were held up in a rare mass public opposition to a Thailand’s royal defamation law – the number a reference to the section of the criminal code it falls under – which protects the monarchy and its unassailable, super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism.
“We have to come out, we have nothing else left,” added Sang’s friend ‘Mee’, also wearing the black uniform of the protesters, which several said was borrowed from the protests that rocked Hong Kong last year.
As night fell, young protesters shined lights from camera phones as speakers railed against the crush on free expression led by a conservative government they say is holding Thailand back.
The demonstration dispersed at about midnight, but organisers said they would return to the streets in two weeks if their demands were not met.
Saturday’s protest could be the largest since the country’s 2014 coup, led by former army chief Prayut.
The years since have seen the economy cramp up, freedoms shrink under new laws and Prayut reinvent himself as an elected premier under a constitution the army drafted.
Thailand’s previous tit-for-tat rounds of political street politics were led by pro- and anti-establishment veterans of the bear-pit of Thai politics, with large financial backing and political machines.
But leaders of the nascent student and youth movement say their activism is organised organically across social media, where anger fuels top trending daily Twitter hashtags against the government.
Thailand’s economy is forecast to lose up to 10 per cent this year due to the pandemic which has floored tourism and exports, battering the middle and working classes.
Hundreds of thousands of students are expected to be jobless when they graduate in September, joining millions of middle class and poor in unemployment in a country with a threadbare welfare system.
A state of emergency brought in to control the virus remains in place across the country, even though Thailand has not recorded a locally transmitted case of the sickness in nearly two months. (Source: CNA)