Top: Participants of “Run Against Dictatorship” flash anti-military three-finger salute in Bangkok on Jan. 12, 2020.
BANGKOK — As many as 10,000 people joined an anti-government running event early Sunday morning in Bangkok in what appeared to be the largest political rally since the military seized power in 2014.
The turnout at Suan Rot Fai was so high that some who previously dismissed the possibility of a large street protest in Bangkok had to give it a second thought, though it is unclear whether the same show of force by the anti-government faction can be repeated if their main opposition party is dissolved by the court.
Thammanat Pongserm, 25, a petrochemical company employee, said he joined the “Run Against Dictatorship” event in order to send a message to the Prayuth Chan-ocha administration that he is unhappy about how they are running the country.
“This is effective one way or the other as many people showed up,” Thammanat said while waiting in a long queue to pick up his T-shirt and running bib for the three kilometer lapse. Thammanat paid 600-baht registration fee to join the event together.
Thammanat also said he wishes that there will be a snap elections but admitted that it’s unlikely to happen. Just hours before the event, the Parliament approved the government’s 2020 annual budget bill of 3.2 trillion baht, a rise of 4.2 per cent from 2019 fiscal year.
If anything, what looms large in participants’ minds is the growing likelihood that the leading opposition party, Future Forward, could be disbanded in the weeks ahead. The party is currently facing multiple legal challenges. Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is also accused of breaking the elections law by lending over 100 million baht to his party.
Thammanat said he is willing to join street protests if the party is dissolved, though he has reservations.
“I will come out and join but it must not be like those staged by Redshirts and Yellowshirts,” he said, referring to violence related to the two political camps behind the cycles of violent street protests in the past 15 years. “I am ready to come out in a show of force.”
Among the participants was longtime activist Chotisak Onsoong, a key member of a pro-democracy group that opposed a military coup in 2006. Chotisak said it’s inevitable that those opposing Prayuth will have to eventually take to the streets in a “traditional” means of protracted protests if they ever hope to oust him.
“Today is a symbolic show of force. In the end a street protest in a traditional sense cannot be avoided,” Chotisak said.
As if prepared for such a prospect, a booth at the park disseminates broadsheet-size pamphlets on how to stage a street demonstration, which is popularly known in Thai as mob.
“How to Protest” was the title of the pamphlet printed by Democracy Restoration Group, a network of young political activists. There were eight guidelines, including “learn about the laws and your rights before leaving home” and how to seek human rights lawyer’s help if “harassed or witch hunted”.
However, other participants complained on social media that they were forced to abandon t-shirts and stickers by the police at checkpoints because they contained “political messages.”
— Titipol Phakdeewanich (@Titipol) January 11, 2020
Senior opposition politicians were also seen at today’s event – apart from Thanathorn himself – including Pheu Thai deputy leader Kittirat na Ranong, 61, who served under the elected government deposed by the military in 2014.
“A good number of people want to express themselves and want the government to be respectful to them,” Kittirat said at 7am, his right hand holding an anti-asthma spray.
Looking at the many new faces of the younger middle class joining the event, Kittirat said, he dares not speculate as to how they will react to possible escalation in the near future.
“No matter what the government does, they cannot suppress the voices of those who are unhappy with those the government manages the country,” he said.
“Run Against Dictatorship” came after weeks of much anticipation and discussion on social media, partly spurred by attempts from the authorities to shut it down. A reporter at the scene and many eyewitnesses believe at least 10,000 people showed up. An official estimate published by the police put the number at about 13,000.
The turnout was so high that even pro-democracy activist Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana who previously downplayed a chance of a large street protest is changing her evaluation. Nuttaa spoke on the stage today, boosting the already high morale of runners and non-running participants.
“We will have to take a long shot and see. We will definitely be bearing the blunt after this,” Nuttaa said.
A pro-Prayuth walking event was also held in parallel at Lumpini Park. No confrontation has been reported.
— Randy Thanthong-Knight (@siraphobknight) January 11, 2020