BANGKOK — During another day of political unrest in Thailand, a student-led call for a general strike is being viewed as a barometer of public support for wide-ranging reforms to the government, parliamentary system, constitution and the monarchy.
After the rally’s start was moved up to 8 a.m. from 2 p.m. without warning, protesters started to gather at Democracy Monument, a popular rallying point historically.
The crowd was not big enough to take over the area at that time, however, but gathered in strength during the course of the morning.
At about 2.45 p.m. the crowd numbering several thousands began moving towards Government House along a route with numerous choke points. The shortest route had already been blocked by buses and heavy barbed wire barricades.
In the morning, human rights lawyer and activist Arnon Nampa took to the stage. “Let us have a peaceful demonstration,” he said. “We will stay here on this side, and not cross over to clash with each other.”
Arnon spoke after ultraroyalists wearing yellow shirts came close to the demonstrators, who had gathered on the northern side of the roundabout that surrounds Democracy Monument. The ultraroyalists were on the southern part of the roundabout and in streets running east and west. At their closest points, the two sides were just tens of meters apart.
Among thousands wearing yellow shirts, many had distinctive cropped haircuts, and were seen earlier being transported in uncovered Bangkok Metropolitan Administration trucks. They are believed to include undercover security personnel drawn in from provincial areas.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s motorcade is scheduled to pass through this part of the city in the evening. Arnon has urged people to give the student movement’s trademark three-finger salute as the motorcade passes, while while reciting a poem inspired by a popular uprising in 1973 that speaks of power belonging to the people.
Today’s protest in support of the general strike was planned by a youth group, People’s Party 2020, at Democracy Monument, which is located not far from the Grand Palace, the main campus of Thammasat University and the administrative heart of the city including Government House.
The choice of the day is also symbolic. Today is the 47th anniversary of a major student-led political uprising in 1973 that led to serious civilian bloodshed. The revolt brought down the decade-old government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, which for years ignored demands for a new constitution.
People’s Party 2020 is a composite of youth activist groups such as Free People and the Student Union of Thailand. People’s Party in Thai — Khana Ratsadorn – is the name of the group that in 1932 overthrew absolute monarchy in Siam, as Thailand was formerly known.
Parit Chiwarak, a leading member of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) who goes by the nickname Penguin, called for the Oct. 14 general strike during an overnight demonstration in Bangkok on Sept. 19 that attracted between 40,000 and 50,000 participants, according to media reports. Organizers claimed the turnout was 100,000, while police put the figure at 18,000.
Another protest in August at Democracy Monument attracted at least 20,000 people. There have been many smaller demonstrations and flash protests around the country in recent months, with university and high school students wearing white ribbons and snapping three-finger salutes to convey peaceful dissent.
Thais overseas have also come out in support of reform, with small protests as far afield as Copenhagen, New York, Sydney, Taipei and Tokyo.
Yesterday, Oct. 13, was meanwhile the fourth anniversary of the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and a public holiday. Royalists wore yellow to mark the occasion, and some early arrivals for today’s protests were rounded up by the authorities.
The anniversary was one of the reasons for a much longer than usual visit by Bhumibol’s successor, his son King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who resides mostly in Germany with a large retinue. The king’s private life and financial affairs have been attracting increased scrutiny of late. Questions have even been raised in the Bundestag, the German parliament.
In response to a question from Frithjof Schmidt, an Alliance 90/The Greens member, Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said, “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil.”
Associate Professor Jade Donavanik, an adviser to Thailand’s last constitution drafting committee, told Nikkei Asia that recent unprecedented domestic criticism of the monarchy, a widely revered institution, might put some off today’s events.
“The protest on October 14 to force reform of the monarchy is unlikely to gain ground,” Jade told Nikkei. He also believed that shifting the key purpose of the demonstrations too much in that direction to be unwise tactically: “It causes confusion and cuts allies,” he said.
People’s Party 2020 has nevertheless hoped for a similar final turnout to the weekend of Sept. 19 organized by UFTD, even though this is the first major protest on a weekday.
The three main demands to emerge from earlier protests have been for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, constitutional changes drafted by representatives of the people, and reform of the monarchy under the constitution – but not its abolition. There were also demands for an end to harassment and intimidation.
Reforms do not appear to be on the near horizon. On Sept. 24, thousands of protesters waited outside parliament while lawmakers considered constitutional amendment proposals from the ruling coalition and opposition. In the end, the debate was kicked down the road with a vote to set up a panel to consider the various proposals.
Thammasat University’s student union issued a statement on Monday calling on the university to cancel classes from Wednesday to Friday to enable students to join the protest.
Responses to the general strike call from elsewhere may be muted, however. As of Tuesday, no large companies had expressed concerns about absenteeism, and many employees have personal concerns.
“I attended past rallies, but will give it a miss this time,” a female office worker told Nikkei on condition of anonymity. “Their calls resonate with me, but I am blessed to have a job in a time of economic difficulty, and won’t risk it.”
“The economy is getting better,” Kalin Sarasin, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, told Nikkei. “I don’t think anyone wants to lose their job by joining the strike.”
The State Enterprises Workers Relations Confederation, the country’s biggest union with nearly 200,000 members from all 47 state-enterprises, has declined to join the general strike, meaning that utilities and other services are likely to be unaffected.
“I don’t see any sign of a big strike at the moment,” Supant Mongkolsuthree, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries told Nikkei. “All mechanisms in Thai business are running as usual, and I expect this to be a symbolic protest with no violence.”
Prime Minister Prayuth urged restraint after a cabinet meeting on Monday: “Please preserve the peace and order of our nation the best we can, with respect for the law so that others will not be affected.” He did not, however, repeat his ignored call from September to avoid demonstrating because of the possible COVID-19 threat.
The Metropolitan Police Bureau said 3,000 police officers would be in attendance today, with checkpoints in place to screen for prohibited items and to check temperatures. Spokesperson Jirapat Pumijitr said additional officers could be drafted in if needed. Extra police checkpoints were already in place in the early morning on key roads into the capital, including expressways.
Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewtae, who replaced Gen. Apirat Kongsompong as army chief at the start of the month, advised protesters calling for reforms to the monarchy to “look at themselves first to see whether they have done everything right before telling others what to do.” He also warned against creating conditions conducive to a coup. Thailand has already had 13 successful military takeovers since 1932, and is on its 20th constitution.