Bangkok: Students attend a rally against the military government at Thammasat University on Wednesday. —AFP
Bangkok: Students attend a rally against the military government at Thammasat University on Wednesday. —AFP

PATHUM THANI: Thailand’s normally docile students have been holding rallies around the country to express their discontent with the established political order.

The rare mass activism was triggered by a court ruling dissolving a popular opposition political party whose democracy-promoting policies had attracted substantial support among younger Thais.

As many as 2,000 students gathered on Wednesday in the biggest demonstration so far, north of Bangkok at the main undergraduate campus of Thammasat University. Rallies have been held or are scheduled at at least 30 educational institutions.

Student protests of such breadth have not been seen in decades, but it is not clear if they will gain traction. They raise pressure on a government already accused of incompetence and failure to cope with an economic downturn.

“These protests are significant because they greatly raise the decibel level of organised opposition to the military-dominated coalition government in power,” said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

Many at the Thammasat rally wore face masks, a form of protection against the new virus, as they carried placards lambasting the government. A musician who took the stage apologised to the crowd that fellow band members could not accompany him because they were playing at other protest venues.

Thammasat’s in-town campus kicked off the campaign on Saturday, and prestigious Chulalongkorn University followed on Monday.

“This is a real organic movement that stems from students’ frustration at injustice. And I think all these protests that we see are just the beginning, the beginning of a sign that people cannot take what’s going in society anymore,” said Panasuya Sithijirawattanakul, a spokeswoman for the Student Union of Thailand who helped organised Saturday’s initial rally.

Last week, the Constitutional Court ordered the opposition Future Forward Party dissolved. The recently formed party won the third-highest number of seats in last year’s general election with an anti-establishment stance that attracted younger voters. But those same positions antagonised Thailand’s traditional ruling class, which is dominated by royalists and the military.

The court ruled that the party broke the election law by accepting a large loan from its leader. However, it is widely believed that the party was targeted for its popularity and for being critical of the government and the military. Its charismatic leaders were barred from holding political office for 10 years.

Discontent has been brewing since the army ousted an elected government in 2014, but protests then were limited to a small circle of students who braved repeated arrests.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020

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