THAI police detained at least eight leaders and several other activists of an anti-junta protest on Tuesday who had tried to mark the fourth anniversary of a coup by marching to Government House, one of the largest acts of dissent since the army grabbed power.
Protest leaders flashed a three finger salute as they were led into a police van — a resistance symbol borrowed by Thailand’s anti-coup movement from the Hollywood movie “The Hunger Games”.
Disquiet with the junta is simmering in Thailand, despite a ban on political gatherings since a coup toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha, who as army chief booted Yingluck’s administration from power, has suggested elections will be held in February next year.
But the timetable for a return to democracy has repeatedly slipped and patience with his junta is wearing thin among many sections of Thai society.
Starting at sunrise, hundreds of student activists and middle-aged “Red Shirt” supporters of the toppled civilian government gathered to march from a university where they had camped overnight to the seat of government.
Wielding banners, Thai flags and fans with a cartoon of the premier mocked-up as “Pinocchio”, they were stopped by police lines blocking their route. “It is the four-year anniversary of the coup and I think now is the time to change,” said Rangsiman Rome, one of the protest organisers.
Hours later after five of his co-leaders were detained by police, he and two other core organisers said they would surrender to face charges linked to violating the ban on political protest.
“I am well aware of your disappointment but it’s the only way to avoid violence,” he told a crowd that had held on for an hours-long standoff that included tense scuffles with police.
The protest dispersed after the detentions.
Human Rights Watch said Thai authorities should immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release the total of 14 pro-democracy activists.
The watchdog said the 14 are charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, and violating the military junta’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people.
“The arrest of peaceful democracy activists calling for free and fair elections shows that Thailand’s military junta has no intention of easing its oppressive rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director.
“Gagging peaceful public protests makes a mockery of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s self-proclaimed commitment to return Thailand to democracy.”
Addressing reporters, Thailand’s gruff premier Prayut was unmoved by the noisy show of discontent with his rule.
“If you ask me, am I in a good mood? I am,” he said. “Today is May 22nd and we review what he have done since 2014… there are many things. It is better to give us support.” Yet Thailand remains divided.
Large sections of society — including the Bangkok middle class — have wearied of rule by a conservative military that has intruded into the lives of ordinary Thais whilst overseeing a widening of the kingdom’s rich-poor wealth gap.
“We want elections. Nothing is being done to guarantee they happen in February,” protestor Anuthee Dejthevaporn, 30, told AFP.
Prayut, who draws backing from an arch-royalist Bangkok elite, says he was forced to seize power to heal the kingdom’s caustic politics and reboot an economy cramped by corruption and protest.
But critics say he has done nothing to heal the country’s bitter divides, with his regime banning political gatherings of five or more people while silencing criticism with legal charges and tight monitoring of prominent activists.
In between, a junta-appointed national assembly has signed off on a new constitution that ties future elected governments to a 20-year plan for the country.
The charter also creates an appointed upper house and other checks on the power of future civilian governments, in what analysts say is a brazen assault on the political base of the Shinawatras. Yingluck, her older brother Thaksin or their proxies have won all Thai general elections since 2001.
But their governments were hit by two coups and endless legal cases that have seen the siblings flee abroad to avoid jail.
Additional reporting by AFP.