BANGKOK – Pro-democracy protests erupted in Bangkok after parliamentary allies of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha helped him survive a no-confidence vote called after growing public anger against his government and its management. the latest coronavirus outbreak.
Thousands of people marched through Bangkok’s mall on Saturday shortly after lawmakers voted 264 to 208 to overturn the opposition’s motion against Prayuth, a former military chief, who has been hanging on to power since the 2014 coup.
Thailand has been trapped in a carousel of coups, mass protests and short-lived civilian governments for the past 15 years. As chief of the army, Prayuth overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and has since transformed into a civilian leader, supported by a fully appointed Senate, the military, the business elite and a very important monarchy. .
Protesters say he has chaired an increasingly authoritarian government, while inequality has soared during his seven-year tenure.
Anger is boiling among protesters, mostly young people, who are back on the streets in droves every night after 18 months of calls for political reforms, including the once untouchable monarchy.
On Saturday, protesters found their planned routes to embassies blocked by shipping containers topped with razor wire, while hundreds of riot police parked them away from sensitive sites. As night fell, fierce protesters threw firecrackers at the police lines.
“Inside or outside parliament, they hold all the power,” Baifern Benjama, 19, told VOA.
“When they hold on to power like that, all we can do is take to the streets.”
Three motions of no confidence against Prayuth have been defeated since 2019 by a legislature dominated by allies of the military establishment he represents.
Another young protester said desperation was mounting and warned it could tip the country towards violence, with Prayuth refusing to cede any ground.
“Nonviolence will not work against this regime,” said Billie, 22, naming her. “I can’t stand and watch. I had to go out to protest and everyone should too. ”
Prayuth’s government has come under intense pressure to deal with the pandemic, which has killed 12,537 since April 1 in the deadliest outbreak to date.
Only 13% of the country has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, raising questions about the slow deployment and a vaccine supply strategy that is turning around.
The government has defended its response to the pandemic, pointing to an increase in the vaccination rate in recent weeks as a sign of its efforts in the face of an unprecedented crisis.
Speaking after the failed attempt to dismiss him, the notorious surly Prayuth dismissed questions of his desire to continue against the growing protests.
“My heart is like a fist, the Prime Minister’s fist,” Prayuth said from the window of his car, before slapping his chest twice and driving away.
Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy has suffered its worst hits since 1997; household debt is skyrocketing and tourists who accounted for 20-25% of GDP before the pandemic are not expected to return in large numbers for several months.
Months of anti-government protests have frayed the credibility of the conservative establishment, with a mixture of anger and ridicule pouring out onto social media as the government struggles to bring the pandemic and the resulting economic pain to Thais under control. .
Experts say momentum had grown towards an early general election ahead of the scheduled 2024 poll. But Prayuth’s latest act of political escape from parliament potentially blocked that progress.
“But our politics are still just as fragile and there is still a chance for a dissolution of parliament,” said Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the second largest opposition party, Move Forward, after the vote. “Political mathematics is one thing, but we’ll have to see if that plays into the legitimacy of government.”
Experts warn that the current political instability will further weaken an economy that was already one of the least equal in Asia before the pandemic cut millions of jobs.
But the prognosis if Prayuth clings to long-term power is grim, according to Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a lawyer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“If Prayuth stays in power, we won’t go anywhere, we will back down,” he added.
Another large rally is expected on Sunday, this time organized by Red Shirt supporters of former Prime Minister Yingluck and his family dynasty, for a key crossroads in Bangkok.