BANGKOK: Over a thousand people gathered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Sunday, police said, to protest against the building of a government luxury housing project on forested land, in one of the largest demonstrations under military rule.
The gathering was one of the largest since Thailand’s junta took power following a 2014 coup. The junta imposed a ban on public gatherings of over five people and has largely curbed freedom of expression through various orders and used military and police force to block public gatherings.
Ariel images of the housing project for judges, circulated on social media over the past few months, showed construction has carved into the forested foothills of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain, inciting public anger.
The police estimated over a thousand people took part in the protest on Sunday which it said proceeded in an orderly fashion.
“Around 1,250 people took part in the protest,” Police Colonel Paisan, deputy commander of Chiang Mai Police told Reuters.
“The protesters were focused on environmental issues and not politics, and they cleaned the street afterwards,” Paisan said. He said the organisers made a proper request for the gathering beforehand and so the protest was allowed to proceed.
Protesters, many wearing green ribbons, demanded the government demolish the new buildings that encroach into Doi Suthep mountain, saying the government must comply in seven days or face more protests.
Public officials have defended the project, pointing out construction was legal and on state-owned land which does not encroach into the national park that covers the mountain.
Officials also said protesters could face legal action if the housing is demolished and that the homes should be used for 10 years before the public can reassess any environmental impact.
Construction started in 2015 and has faced opposition from local environmental groups who regard the mountain as sacred for Chiang Mai and as a “natural lung” for the north’s largest city.
The military government, which has promised to hold an election next year, has faced a growing number of public protests in recent months, including a pro-democracy demonstration in Bangkok last month demanding the military withdraw support for the ruling junta.