Anti-government protesters hold up signs during a rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Aug. 16. Tensions have risen after the arrest of three activists leading the pro-democracy movement. (Photo: AFP)
Some 10,000 young Thais gathered on Aug. 16 for the largest pro-democracy protest since the Royal Thai Army seized power in a coup in 2014.
Defying their country’s authorities by gathering around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, the protesters carried handwritten signs in which they made their feelings known about Thailand’s current regime, which is comprised of a coalition of conservative and royalist fellow travelers headed by ex-army generals.
“You may write me down [as] history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may tread me [into] the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise,” said one poignant sign carried by a young woman wearing a baseball cap with the word “love” embroidered on it.
“Sick of your [expletive]. Stop [expletive] killing us,” said another sign carried by a young man.
The message was an obvious reference to allegations that several Thai pro-democracy activists and political dissidents who have been murdered or have disappeared without a trace in recent years have been silenced on the orders of people in the country’s ruling elite.
Other young protesters were more straightforward with messages they had written with markers on A4-size pieces of white paper. “We need freedom of speech,” said one sign. “We need real democracy,” said another.
Although Thailand held parliamentary elections last year after five years of dictatorial rule by a military junta, the leaders of that junta remain in charge thanks to a rejigged new voting system that observers have labeled unfree and unfair.
The protesters called for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who spearheaded the coup of 2014, to resign so that true democracy could be restored with a newly elected civilian government that reflects the actual political preferences of most Thai voters.
“Many, many young people are sick of this corrupt and repressive regime,” a university student who identified herself as Supansa told UCA News. “This government is illegitimate.”
Supansa also decried a lack of essential freedoms in her homeland. “We want to live in a free country where we can say what we think and what we know. In Thailand we can’t do this. We can’t mention who has been behind many of the country’s problems.”
Yet despite limits on free speech, many young protesters have been openly challenging age-old taboos, such as by calling for a reform of Thailand’s monarchy, which is protected from any criticism by a draconian lese majeste law.
In response, Thai authorities last week arrested several prominent protest leaders, including outspoken student leader Parit Chiwarak, and charged them with sedition and other crimes.
The authorities also forbade the young activists from organizing or participating in any further protests before releasing them on bail.
Undaunted, Parit and other targeted activists attended the Aug. 16 protest defiantly to send a message that they won’t be intimidated or silenced.
In recent weeks, student protests have been gathering momentum with numerous high school, college and university campuses becoming the sites of mass rallies where some participants delivered passionate denunciations of the military and the country’s powerful oligarchy.
“We are fed up with dictatorship, with people’s voices being ignored, with activists being harassed by the authorities, with enforced disappearances, with the government siding with the capitalists leaving the rest of the people to suffer, with the law not being applied to the elites, with us the people not holding power,” said Sirin Mungchareon, a student who participated in a rally attended by more than 1,000 students on Aug. 14 at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.