BANGKOK, Thailand—Around a thousand black-clad protesters echoed chants of “down with dictatorship” in the Thai capital of Bangkok on Sunday, August 16. As the night went on, the crowd ballooned to an estimated 10,000 people, who marched in solidarity with a defiant new youth-led movement that’s been calling on the government to return power to the people.
Sunday’s rally, held at the iconic Democracy Monument, was by far the largest anti-government protest in the country since the military coup in 2014.
The new movement has been gaining traction since February over dissatisfaction with the military-backed government, though the coronavirus pandemic put a momentary pause on activity.
Large-scale demonstrations were reignited in July when protest leaders began demanding three major structural changes: the dissolution of parliament, the rewriting of the nation’s constitution and the end to the intimidation of government critics.
Demonstrations are growing larger and have united Thai citizens from different backgrounds in calls for democracy. Sunday’s rally stood out from others in its overt criticism of the Thai government and rejections of deeply rooted social norms that are typically taboo due to the country’s strict “lese-majeste” laws—criticizing the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Speakers st Sunday’s event also encouraged more human rights-focused policies on sex work, abortion and LGBTQ freedoms.
Bangkok police said that about 10,000 people attended the protests, while Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, the leader of the Free People movement spearheading protests, told VICE News on Monday, August 17, that his organization estimates around 30,000 people were in attendance.
“This shows that the establishment must respond to our three demands,” he said.
At a few different points, a few dozen counter-protesters led by traditionalists who believe the current system should not be challenged yelled down anti-government demonstrators. Although tensions were high, there were no clashes between the opposing groups.
VICE News spoke to several young protesters who were concerned that the event would end in violence. On social media, recommendations of how to escape the area if police used force circulated online. A young woman identified only as “Ice” out of fear of political reprisal told VICE News that protesters were “all pretty worried” about the possibility of violence being used against protesters.
“I think we should protest peacefully, but we can’t predict if the cops will decide to use weapons this time,” she said.
Sunday’s rally followed the recent arrests of key pro-democracy players, a move observers say has been aimed at suppressing dissent.
Student leader Parit Chiwarak was the latest to be arrested and charged with sedition. He was released on bail just days before the rally and told not to attend future protests, though he defied police orders.
Parit told VICE News last week that he was not afraid of being arrested.
“If reforms require many of us to face arrest, then so be it,” he said. Panupong Jadnok, another leading pro-democracy activist who was arrested earlier this month, told VICE News on Monday that he was encouraged by the rally’s turnout. “I’m impressed with how many people gathered,” he said. “It was beyond our expectations.”
“We now feel that our goals are not too far away,” he added. “The message will continue to spread through the nation and the fight will go on.”
As the rally began winding down towards 11 p.m. on Sunday, the atmosphere was emotional and positive. “The country belongs to the people!” thousands shouted in unison.
Despite fears among some protesters that police would use violence or arrest to intimidate, the rally was largely peaceful. Protest leaders said that if the movement’s demands were not met, they would return in greater numbers.
At a press conference on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters that protestors have the right to rally, as long as their actions do not impose on the rights of others.
“The government is duty-bound to provide security for the demonstrators,” he said. In a later interview, he also agreed that the country’s constitution should be amended.