Top: A man holds up a sign reading “My Country is Good” at “Walk to Support Uncle” on Jan. 12, 2020.
BANGKOK — Several thousands walked and beat fruit piñatas in a Sunday morning rally to show support for PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, coming hot on the heels of a rival anti-government event that drew far more participants.
At “Walk to Support Uncle” held inside Lumpini Park, organizers urge the joggers to keep their faith in the Prime Minister, whom they call by the endearing term “Uncle.” It was a semi-reunion for many who walked the streets of Bangkok years ago in a mass protest that helped Prayuth seize power in 2014.
“We’re here today to show that people who support Prayuth are no less than the others,” prominent pro-government activist Songklot “Capt. Pu Khem” Chuenchuphon said. “Prayuth is an honest person. I support him because he pours all of his heart to this country.”
He urged Prayuth’s supporters to “open their hearts to facts” and hinted that more rallies will take place in the future.
“Many indicators have shown us that Thailand is ranked among the top of the world, in contrast to what those nation-haters are trying to discredit the government,” Songklot said.
Although he said 13,000 people signed up for the walk, a reporter at the scene estimated at most 7,000-8,000 walkers showed up. An official count by the police put the figure at 8,000.
The event, though billed as a sports tournament, is a de facto rally to support the government, who has been hit by a series of scandals and corruption allegations since it formally started its term in June.
It is also widely seen as a retaliation against anti-government running event “Run Against Dictatorship” held the same morning, which reportedly attracted more people; one count estimated as many as 13,000 participants.
The 2.5 kilometers walk inside the park was mostly attended by people in their 40s to 60s. They crowded the entrance of the park holding banners and shouting chants to support the Prayuth administration.
“Why’re we here today?, to cheer up the uncle,” the protesters chanted.
“Who pays for us to be here? No one!”
Although “Run Against Dictatorship” was joined by key opposition politicians like Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, pro-government politicos were nowhere to be seen at this event in Lumpini Park.
While participants were lacing up for the walk, onlookers were encouraged to swing a bat at orange, strawberry, and watermelon piñatas. The organizers said they represented the Future Forward Party, whose official color is orange.
There were also boards for people to write Post-It notes to share their love for PM Prayuth.
Old Guards Close Ranks
Among the crowd was Mullika Boonprakob, 54, who said she came out to show her allegiance for the country’s key institutions – the nation, religion, and monarchy – as well as her love for the premier.
“I’m here to defend the nation, religion, and monarchy,” she said. “I want to protect PM Prayuth from the detractors. He doesn’t do anything wrong. He loves his country and there’s nothing wrong about him.”
Asked which policy she thought is the best for her, she took a brief pause before mentioning the new train lines.
“Everything was developed under his tenure,” Mullika said. “We got the new metro lines and better welfare. No other administration could do as good as him.”
Like many other joggers at the event, Mullika said she was a veteran of the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State, a pro-establishment protest movement that sought to topple then-PM Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013 and paved the way for Prayuth to stage a coup a year later.
“No one paid for me to be here today. No one can buy me. In fact, I donated more than 60,000 baht for the PDRC protests in the past,” she said, using the acronym of the group’s official English name, People’s Democratic Reform Committee.
In contrast to “Run Against Dictatorship,” the event saw very little participation from members of the youth. However, a 23-year-old student who would only give his name as Waranchit said he doesn’t feel out of place in the crowd of much older supporters of the government.
“Many of my friends said I’m a salim,” he said, referring to a derogatory term used by anti-government critics to call their enemies. “But I don’t care because they’re the ones who don’t understand what’s going on in politics.”
“I want to be here to show the other side that our side is also large in numbers,” he continued. “This doesn’t mean a confrontation. We can have different ideologies, but in the end we’re all Thais.”
Waranchit said he also joined the anti-Yingluck protests seven years ago. He said his family taught him well, which allowed him to distinguish between the “good” and the “bad” in politics.
“I’m not saying that I’m outright supporter of the government. Look at Deputy PM Prawit [Wongsuwan] watch scandal for example, I know that it doesn’t look right,” he said.
Just a Walk in the Park?
Prior to today’s rally, mystery loomed over the identity of those behind the event, which was mostly organized online by anonymous pro-Prayuth Facebook page called “Cheering Uncle.”
A woman who identified herself as the administrator of that Facebook page made an appearance at the event today, but refused to speak to reporters.
The admin was quoted by Matichon in a Wednesday report as saying that she is not a part of the “information operations” led by the government or the military.
She also said the page’s administrators bankrolled the event from their own pockets and went through several hurdles to organize it.
“We don’t dramatize the difficulties,” Matichon quoted her as saying. “We also had to travel to four different police stations and the city hall to seek permission.”
Police presence at “Walk to Support Uncle” was minimal, with no more than 20 uniformed officers visible around the venue.
In contrast to reported harassment by authorities at the rival event, in which “Run Against Dictator” participants were told by the police to take off their shirts and surrender their banners with political slogans, “Walk to Support Uncle” participants were free to display political banners and flags.
Lumpini police chief Nitiwat Sansing himself hinted that the police didn’t treat the rally as a political gathering. Col. Nitiwat told the media on Saturday that he’s not worried about the event because it’s “just a walk in the park.”
Correction: The original caption of the header image identified the person as a foreigner. In fact, we did not establish whether he was a naturalized Thai citizen. The caption has been amended.