By Nontarat Phaicharoen
Large anti-government rallies held in several parts of Thailand on the weekend should serve as a wake-up call to the government to address mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and other concerns, analysts said Monday.
Demonstrations in Bangkok on Saturday and in northern Chiang Mai province the next day drew thousands of people, making them the largest such gatherings since the opposition Future Forward Party was disbanded in February.
On Monday, dozens gathered outside the Thai Royal Army headquarters in Bangkok, saying they were protesting military interference in politics. Activists in northern Maha Sarakham province said they planned to protest on Wednesday.
“I think the crowds of students and others were huge because the troubles have been accumulating for so long,” said Anusorn Unno, a professor at Thammasat University.
“When COVID-19 restrictions were eased and jitters subsided, they came out to challenge the government,” he said. “[T]he government should realize it has been warned, and it may need to gird itself for future protests.”
A network of university students calling itself “Free Youth” laid out three demands on Saturday: dissolve parliament; stop “harassing dissidents”; and amend the 2017 Constitution, which they said was tailored to enable Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to maintain power.
“Why are you here?” Nattawut Somboonsub, a physician, asked the protesters. “Overthrow Prayuth!” they yelled in response.
“If we do not receive any answers to the three-count demand, we will increase the rallies in the future,” Tathep Ruangprapaikijseri, a Free Youth leader, told the crowds. Protesters vowed to return in two weeks if their demands were not met.
Bangkok police are considering pressing charges against protest leaders for “demonstrating in public places without a permit and/or violating the emergency decree,” the Bangkok Post reported Monday.
A government spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment.
‘Heed their calls’
Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University – where hundreds also demonstrated on Sunday – said Prayuth and his ministers should be aware of the protesters’ message.
“The young people do not approve of the government; it should heed their calls,” he told BenarNews.
But he noted that the government had “an array of tools to quell the movements, including the emergency decree and other laws it could use to muffle freedom of expression.”
Prayuth, who led a military coup in 2014 that overthrew the democratic government of Yingluck Shinawatra, said at the time the coup was necessary to bring order following a series of protests.
He became the country’s elected prime minister in 2019, after overseeing a new constitution and electoral laws widely seen as tilted toward that result.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the students should be allowed to express their views.
“The Thai authorities should respect these activists’ rights to peaceful, public protest and freedom of expression, and under no circumstances charge them with criminal offenses for their actions on Saturday,” he told BenarNews.
“It’s heartening to see the protesters display the faces of so many Thais who have disappeared,” referring to images of activists who disappeared in Laos and Cambodia over the past year.
“The Thai government needs to provide answers, not excuses, to the families of these many missing activists,” he said.
‘A big mistake’
Protesters demanding Prayuth’s ouster cited ongoing suppression of democracy, economic woes and mismanagement of the pandemic.
The kingdom has kept its cumulative caseload under 3,300 and has not seen a COVID-19 fatality in two months. Yet an emergency decree imposed in late March to help curb spread of the highly infectious disease remains in place.
But a recent health scare touched a nerve, after an Egyptian soldier who stayed in a hotel and visited a mall while his military plane was on a layover in eastern Rayong province turned out to be coronavirus positive.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Egyptian ambassador over the incident; Prayuth traveled to the province to speak to residents, and apologized in a nationwide broadcast.
But two men who protested the visit were slapped with multiple charges, including violating the emergency decree and the Disease Control Act.
“I protested the prime minister because I want him to show responsibility for the flagging economy by dissolving the parliament and find a competent leader instead to govern the country with fairness,” Panupong Jadnok, 23, one of the two who were charged, told BenarNews on Monday.
“We have a reason to take to streets lately because the government has made a big mistake regarding Egyptian crew man. He caused all Thais who cooperated with the government to have to worry about COVID-19 again,” said Panupong, a Ramkhamhaeng University student who participated in Saturday’s rally.
The Philippine-based Asian Development Bank last month projected the Thai gross domestic product would contract by 6.5 percent this year because of the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, the government announced that Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, Tewan Liptapanlop, and Labor Minister Chatumongol Sonakul had resigned, bringing to six the number of cabinet ministers who have resigned since Thursday. Neither gave a reason for stepping down.
The four who stepped down last week – including Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana – were all members of Prayuth’s Palang Pracharath party, which recently saw a change in leadership.
“When the political circumstances changed, they have to go, I feel pitiful,” Prayuth told reporters on Thursday. “I have to call some people to see if they want the vacant positions.”