Thai protesters claim “change of heart” as they take to the streets to oppose PM Prayuth | Voice of america
A noisy convoy of luxury cars drove through Bangkok’s richest neighborhood on Sunday calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down as Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters are strengthened by old political enemies who have switched sides.
Thailand’s government is grappling with the double crisis of a rampant pandemic and political protests.
Despite an emergency ordinance banning crowds, thousands of young protesters angry at the government’s sluggish introduction of the vaccine – only 6% of Thai people were fully vaccinated – clashed with police on Saturday, met with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets fired.
On Sunday, former royalist hardliner Tanat Thanakitamnuay led an “automobile” rally through Bangkok’s Thong Lor district, home of the city’s rich. In the past, residents of this neighborhood were reliable political allies of Prayuth’s conservative establishment.
Prayuth is a former army chief who came to power in 2014 with the support of Bangkok’s elite – including Tanat, a 29-year-old whose father founded the upscale real estate empire Noble Development.
His Sunday protest was called “Salim Change of Heart” and uses the Thai political slang “Salim” for those who refuse to take sides in public but privately support the establishment.
“Power corrupts and Prayuth has absolute power. His government has really failed across the board, especially during this pandemic, “Tanat said.
His change of heart is a big one. In 2014, he was a young, belligerent leader of the month-long royalist protests that crippled the civil government of Yingluck Shinawatra and led to Prayuth’s coup.
Seven years later, the general is now prime minister and the Thai constitution has been rewritten to allow the army to remain in power.
The pro-democracy movement wants Prayuth out and demands a new constitution to banish the army from politics once and for all – and to limit the power of the monarchy.
Tanat hopes that his conversion can show that the harsh rivalries of the past can be alleviated. Dissatisfaction with the government has grown due to the pandemic that killed more than 5,000 people and an economy that has slipped into its worst recession in a generation.
On Sunday, Tanat greeted former rivals of the “red shirts” – the rural democracy movement allied with the Shinawatra political dynasty.
“I made a mistake and it cost people the right to democracy. I want to do that right, ”he said.
Fear of vaccination
Experts say the anger of Bangkok’s middle and upper classes who once believed in the stability narrative promised by Prayuth is new and could cause problems for the prime minister.
Much of the resentment among the urban elite has been driven by pandemic fears and a shortage of vaccines beyond the Chinese-made Sinovac – which the government sourced early but is widely distrusted in Thailand.
“For the first time, the upper class who thought they were at the top of society can’t even find hospital beds or high-quality vaccines for themselves,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a law scholar from Chulalongkorn University, told VOA.
“Now they are realizing that they have lived far too long in this bubble that will not protect them unless they are at the top of the social hierarchy.”
Prayuth still has followers. The strongest are arch-royalists, who see him and the army as a buffer between the angry pro-democracy camp and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who sits at the head of Thai power.
“What you see on the streets represents only 20% of the population,” said Warisanun Sribawontanakit, who runs a Facebook fan page for Prayuth with 244,000 followers.
“The majority of Thais are still united behind the monarchy and support Prayuth,” she said. “The way out for this country is to make sure that 80% are cared for, vaccinated, their beloved monarchy untouched and the mob movement destroyed. Then we will return to where we were. “
But the protests continue a year after they emerged. They are now moving in a cross-section of “Gen Z” youth, older rural red shirts and repentant former fans of Prayuth.
In a country whose policies often produce unexpected results, analysts say it is difficult to read what is more likely next. Possible are a coup to knock out the protesters, another election to challenge Prayuth, or a long, bitter stalemate.
“Who wins, who loses? It depends on the battle. When we talk about the Cultural Revolution – the revolution in mindset – the pro-democracy protesters win, ”says Voranai Vanijaka, a prominent political commentator.
“When we talk about the battle for government … the battle for the elections that might come next year, the Prayuth regime still has the advantage of having power over every facet of government.”