Anti-government demonstrators during a Thai anti-government mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand, October 14 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA
Anti-government demonstrators during a Thai anti-government mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand, October 14 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

Bangkok — Tens of thousands of Thai protesters defied police barricades and pro-establishment groups in Bangkok on Wednesday for the most tense demonstration yet in a student-led push for greater democracy and less power for the monarchy.

The protesters pushed through several blockades made of transit buses, fences and barbed wire during their 2km march to Government House, the office of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, where they plan to camp out for the night and surround it until the weekend. While they filled the main street in front of the building, thousands of police officers were deployed around the main protest venue.

Minor scuffles broke out as a group of royalist government supporters clad in yellow shirts earlier confronted protesters at Democracy Monument, where demonstrators removed flowers and plants in a symbolic gesture to show they were taking back the country’s democracy.

The anti-government protesters shouted “Prayuth, get out!” and held up a three-finger salute — one of the symbols of the escalating protest movement. As many as 100,000 people may join the protest, making it the biggest since the movement started mid-July, said Arnon Nampa, one of the leaders of the movement.

The protesters are calling for the resignation of Prayuth, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014, and a rewriting of the constitution drafted by a military-appointed panel that helped him stay on following elections last year. They also want curbs on the monarchy, such as prohibiting the king from endorsing any coups and revoking restrictive laws that criminalise insults against King Maha Vajiralongkorn and top members of the royal family.

People power

“The movement shows the power of the people who want democracy, and want the country to be better,” said Suphakan Mongkolnavin, who was joining the anti-government protest for a second time.

Some protesters gave a three-finger salute to a motorcade of Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana passing in front of the premier’s office. She smiled and waved back. The movement doesn’t “want to overthrow the monarchy. We want the monarchy that respects democracy”, said Parit Chiwarak, one of the organisers.

The baht fell as much as 0.5% to 31.285 to the dollar, a one-week low, and the benchmark SET Index of stocks tumbled 0.7% as the continued protests weighed on investor sentiments. The currency is the second-worst performer in Asia this year as foreign investors turned net sellers of the nation’s stocks and bonds.

“While the political situation has so far been under control, the lingering protests do not bode well for the Thai economic recovery, which remains dependent mainly on domestic drivers at this stage,” said Tim Leelahaphan, an economist at Standard Chartered in Bangkok. “Political developments have made us cautious on the economic outlook for the rest of this year and into early 2021.”

Police arrested 21 protesters and dispersed a group of demonstrators ahead of the bigger rally on Wednesday. Prayuth said on Wednesday that he’d continue “working as usual”.

National police spokesperson Yingyos Thepjamnong said officers will try to prevent clashes between the two sets of protesters. The police are also on the lookout for anyone attempting to create chaos among the protesters, according to spokesperson Kritsana Pattanacharoen.

School and university students, as well as labour groups and the movement’s supporters outside Bangkok, are at the gathering, according to Parit, one of the organisers who wrote a 10-point demand calling for monarchy reform. The date was chosen to mark the anniversary of a 1973 uprising in which dozens of student protesters were killed.

Bloomberg

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