On the fourth anniversary of the military coup that brought him to power, Thailand’s prime minister reiterated Tuesday that elections would take place early next year even as security forces arrested pro-democracy demonstrators who tried to march to his office.
About 300 demonstrators belonging to the “We Want Voting Movement” gathered in Bangkok’s Thammasat University on Monday night and started to march the next morning toward Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s office, where they planned to read a statement calling for elections to be held this year.
But police blocked them from reaching their destination and, by Tuesday afternoon, 15 protest leaders and others had been arrested or turned themselves in to the authorities.
“I have already said that (the elections) are following the proper steps, which is early 2019, no sooner,” Prayuth told reporters as protesters marched toward his office.
On May 22, 2014, then-Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha plunged the nation into military rule by overthrowing the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He dissolved parliament, detained political leaders and imposed a curfew while promising to bring Thailand back to democracy within 18 months.
Since then, Prayuth has postponed several times what he has referred to as his “road map” to an election, infuriating pro-democracy groups by pushing the date back to February 2019 at the earliest.
The protestors who demonstrated on Tuesday – some holding effigies of a Pinocchio-nosed Prayuth and placards denouncing the junta – were met by a police security blockade before getting close to the Government House, the seat of Thailand’s executive power.
Earlier, the Supreme Administrative Court had rejected their request for the 4.3-km (2.7-mile) march from the university, according to police.
A few leaders and about 100 demonstrators passed through the blockade after minor scuffles with about 3,000 baton-wielding riot police and managed to move to the United Nations building, a block away from Prayuth’s office. They were rounded up after the police allowed them to use a megaphone to make a statement.
“Elections must take place in November of this year, as the NCPO promised,” activist Cholthicha Jaengraew said before the demonstrators were detained and hauled off in a police truck to Phya Thai police station, ending the protests after 3 p.m.
“Over the past night and day we have shown that to speak about elections is a basic right all citizens can have but is hampered in Thailand. It’s ridiculous,” protest leader Rangsiman Rome told supporters at Thammasat before going to the police station.
Prayuth said he respected people’s rights, but he had to stop the demonstration because it was unlawful. Under security provisions imposed by the junta, it is illegal for more than five people to stage political gatherings.
“The We Want Voting Movement can make demands. They cited constitutional rights to do so, but there are laws on public gatherings to follow. They must think this through thoroughly,” Prayuth said.
A local NGO and legal aid group, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said the 15 rally participants were detained at two police stations in Bangkok and faced charges of sedition, defying the junta’s ban on political gatherings of five or more people, and harming the nation. Sedition carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, according to a legal expert.
The U.N.’s Human Rights Office issued a statement calling for the immediate release of the activists.
“We have consistently urged the Royal Thai Government, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to fully respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” it said.
Prayuth: Keeping the peace
Speaking to reporters, Prayuth said he could not allow the country to face instability caused by this and other protests.
“The government must enforce the laws for peace,” Prayuth said. “Mark my word, the prosecution will be intense, otherwise the national interest is compromised. I can’t let that happen.”
Not all groups oppose the junta, an academic at Ubon Ratchathani University said, adding that many wanted the military leaders to remain in office.
“When we look at what happened today, there are two shades – dissenters and supporters of the protests,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews by phone.
The lecturer questioned Prayuth’s sincerity to holding an election early next year.
“I don’t believe there will be elections as the premiere promised. It depends on whether he and the military feel comfortable they have built enough support,” Titipol said.
He also said junta leaders were working to improve relations with supporters of the Shinawatra family in a bid to retain power through elections. Yingluck and her older brother, Thaksin, both were removed from the prime minister’s office by military coups.
Some Thais have mixed feelings about Prayuth’s government.
A farmer leader in Yala province, in Thailand’s troubled southern border region, gave the junta positive marks for security during the past four years, but downgraded the leadership over pocketbook issues.
“We need to look at different aspects. The violence in Deep South has decreased, but the economy has suffered,” Songwut Damringkul told BenarNews. “We are under democratic rule and yet we are longing for elections.”