BANGKOK: Scuffles broke out as thousands of mainly young and black-clad Thai protesters converged on Saturday at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, in the city’s rowdiest anti-government protest in years.
Thailand, a kingdom whose rambunctious politics is defined by coups and often deadly street protests, is facing an unprecedented economic shock due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the economy in freefall, anger against a government stacked with elderly former generals and supporters of the royalist establishment is bubbling.
The crowd sang vitriolic anti-government rap songs and waved placards denouncing the administration of former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- and calling for the abolition of the Thailand’s strict royal defamation law.
"The government doesn’t care about us, so either we come out or we lose anyway," said 18-year-old student called Sang, giving one name only.
"The laws protect the rich and leave the people with nothing."
Placards against the royal defamation law -- dubbed ‘112’ after the criminal code it falls under -- protects Thailand’s monarchy and its unassailable and super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism.
"We have to come out, we have nothing else left," added Sang’s friend ‘Mee’, also wearing the black uniform of the protesters, which several said was borrowed from the pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong last year.
Hundreds of police tried to block off access to the Democracy Monument, whose concrete concourse was suddenly filled in on Saturday afternoon with pot plants.
Scuffles broke out as protesters tipped over metal barriers and forced their way through police lines to hold a noisy rally at the memorial, which was built to mark the 1932 revolution that established a constitutional monarchy.
Analysts say the kingdom is slipping back towards absolutism under the reign of Rama X and the hardline royalist generals around him.
Saturday’s protest could be the largest since the country’s 2014 coup, led by former army chief Prayut.
The years since have seen the economy cramp up, freedoms shrink under new laws and Prayut reinvent himself as an elected premier under a constitution the army drafted.
Thailand’s previous tit-for-tat rounds of political street politics were led by pro- and anti-establishment billionaires with large political machines.
But leaders of the nascent student and youth movement say their activism is organised organically across social media, where anger fuels top trending daily Twitter hashtags against the government.
Thailand’s economy is forecast to lose up to 10 percent this year due to the pandemic which has floored tourism and exports, battering the middle and working classes.
Hundreds of thousands of students are expected to be jobless when they graduate in September.
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