BANGKOK — About 400 anti-government protesters rallied Saturday in the Thai capital, calling on the country’s military rulers to give up power and hold elections they promised soon after staging a coup in 2014.
The demonstration, held despite the government’s efforts to intimidate the protesters with legal charges, was one of the largest in recent years and reflected demonstrators’ renewed confidence as the ruling junta’s prestige has slipped due to corruption scandals and political sleight-of-hand. The point was underscored by the growth of the late afternoon rally from an initial 200 participants to about 400 by nightfall.
“Stop holding on to power. Stop delaying an election,” read a sign held by one protester, reflecting the main theme of the rally.
The protesters gathered near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional venue for political activity, but were kept across the street by more than 100 policemen who kept watch on their nonviolent demonstration.
More than three dozen pro-democracy activists face criminal charges for their last protest late last month, but many apparently attended Saturday’s rally.
“It is very clear that regardless of the fear tactics and intimidation and baseless charges that the junta slapped on protesters, they remain defiant and relentless in expressing their rights and their freedom peacefully,” said Sunai Pasuk, a researcher in Thailand for the New York-based group Human Right Watch. “Their campaign is very clear that they are reminding the junta of their own promises to hold an election within the end of this year and returning Thailand to democracy.”
Both Saturday’s and last month’s protests were spearheaded by students whose dedication to nonviolent tactics and fearlessness in the face of threats of jail has made them a small but persistent thorn in the side of the junta for the past few years. However, their actions have so far failed to inspire a mass following, with many Thais willing to tolerate the junta’s firm but generally mild repression after years of disruptive and sometimes violent political struggle between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by an earlier coup in 2006.
The military came to power with a promise to undertake political reforms to stamp out corruption, and managed to weather several scandals of its own, largely by virtue of being the power-holders.
However, it has repeatedly set back plans to hold elections and restore representative democracy, changing its so-called road map several times and recently suggesting that its latest projected election target of the end of 2018 would have to be moved to 2019. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander led the 2014 coup, has lately made moves suggesting he would like to keep his job even after elections, reneging on earlier vows that he held no such ambition.
As its political credibility was slipping, a colorful corruption scandal surfaced, as Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, another former army general and key junta member, was seen to possess many ultra-expensive watches that he could not possibly afford on his official pay. His explanation that the watches had been loaned to him by friends met with general disbelief and ridicule. A previously reticent press has begun to stiffen its criticism of the ruling generals.
The student-led protesters have kept to their long-held line of calling for the military to step down and hold fresh polls.
“It is within our right to hold a political gathering to call for an election,” Chonthicha Jangrew, a student activist, said Saturday. “What we called for is simply asking the government to keep its promised road map. Even if they will pursue us with legal cases, I am confident that we have rights to hold these activities today and in the future.”