Anti-government protesters have gathered in Thailand’s capital for a rally that may test whether their movement has any strength beyond the college campuses where it has blossomed.
Thousands of people assembled at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional venue for political activities. Hundreds of police were also present, as well as a small contingent of royalists opposing the protesters.
The student-led movement has three core demands: holding new elections, amending the constitution and ending intimidation of critics of the government.
As the army chief in 2014, current prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha led a coup ousting an elected government. He then served as prime minister in the military regime that succeeded it, and returned as PM after a general election last year.
Laws guiding the 2019 election were widely seen as so heavily rigged in his favour that victory was all but guaranteed.
Protest leaders triggered controversy last week when they expanded their agenda, publicly criticising Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for its reform.
Their action was virtually unprecedented as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand, and any criticism is normally kept private. A lese majeste law calls for a prison sentence of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of defaming the royal institution.
The sensitivity of the issue was illustrated by the failure of most mainstream Thai media to report in any detail on the students’ manifesto about the monarchy.
Police have arrested several protest leaders and charged them with sedition for statements made at a small rally in July. They were released on bail and vowed to attend Sunday’s rally, in what appeared to be defiance of the terms of their release.
It is unclear how the escalation of its demands to include the monarchy has affected the popularity of the protest movement, since it could alienate some followers or make them fearful that the authorities will crack down heavily on them.
The government may also face a dilemma as it is committed to defending the royal institution but may be wary of acting with too heavy a hand that might tilt public support to the protesters.
Mr Prayuth’s government has done well in coping with the health aspects of coronavirus, but its management of the economy had been lacklustre even before Covid-19 battered it.
Royalists have responded to the student movement by defending the monarchy in online statements and petitions, and in person with a small presence close to Sunday’s rally. They declared earlier that they were there to observe and bear witness to any insults to the monarchy.