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article imageProtest greets fourth year of Thai junta rule

By Sippachai KUNNUWONG, Sally Mairs (AFP)     May 21, 2018 in World

Thai police blocked anti-junta protesters from marching to Government House on Tuesday to mark four years of military rule, one of the largest acts of dissent since the army grabbed power.

Hundreds of student activists and middle-aged 'Red Shirt' supporters of the toppled civilian government wielded banners, Thai flags and fans with a cartoon of the premier mocked-up as "Pinocchio", as they massed at a police blockade obstructing their progress to the seat of government in Bangkok.

Disquiet with the junta is simmering in Thailand, despite a ban on political gatherings since a coup toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who as army chief booted Yingluck's administration from power, has suggested elections will be held in February next year.

But the timetable for a return to democracy has frequently slipped and patience with his junta is wearing thin among many sections of Thai society.

Demonstrators gather near a police barricade outside Thammasat University during a protest to mark t...
Demonstrators gather near a police barricade outside Thammasat University during a protest to mark the fourth year of junta rule in Bangkok
LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA, AFP/File

"It is the four-year anniversary of the coup and I think now is the time to change," said Rangsiman Rome, one of the protest leaders.

"We don't want to protest. It's hot, it's tiring. But we have no choice to make them listen to us."

He said the protest was drawing inspiration from the shock election victory in early May of Mahathir Mohamad in neighbouring Malaysia that turfed the authoritarian incumbent, Najib Razak, from office.

Protesters camped out overnight at Thammasat University, the historic heart of Thailand's pro-democracy movement and the scene of numerous bloody crackdowns by a military that has dominated Thailand's politics.

Street protests have a long history in Thailand, with rallies often carefully choreographed to avoid direct confrontation with authorities.

- Junta fatigue -

The junta's number two, Prawit Wongsuwan, told reporters the protesters "cannot march" to Government House, and a police spokesman said any protester breaching the blockade outside it could face six months in jail.

"If they decide to use force against us, there is nothing we can do," protestor Anuthee Dejthevaporn, 30, told AFP.

"We want elections. Nothing is being done to guarantee they happen in February."

Four years after the coup, Thailand remains divided.

Large sections of society -- including the Bangkok middle class -- have wearied of rule by a conservative military that has intruded into the lives of ordinary Thais whilst overseeing a widening of the kingdom's rich-poor wealth gap.

Prayut, who draws backing from an arch-royalist Bangkok elite, says he was forced to seize power to heal the kingdom's caustic politics and reboot an economy cramped by corruption and protest.

Yingluck, her older brother Thaksin or their proxies have won all Thai general elections since 2001.

Police have blocked anti-junta protesters from marching to Government House
Police have blocked anti-junta protesters from marching to Government House
LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA, AFP/File

But their governments were hit by two coups and endless legal cases that have seen Yingluck and Thaksin flee abroad to avoid jail.

Prayut has banned political gatherings of five or more people and silenced criticism with legal charges and tight monitoring of prominent activists.

In between, a junta-appointed national assembly has signed off on a new constitution that ties future elected governments to a 20-year plan for the country.

The charter also creates an appointed upper house and other checks to the power of future civilian governments, in what analysts say is a brazen assault on the political base of the Shinawatras.

Prayut has been busily courting one-time Shinawatra allies in their northeastern heartlands.

It is unclear how much electoral loyalty the family's party -- Pheu Thai -- still commands, with the star siblings Thaksin and Yingluck overseas and unable to galvanise supporters on the ground.

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