Thai students angry at govt, rally against dissolution of opposition party

Students flash the Hunger Games salute at a pro-democracy rally against the govt at Thammasat University. (AFP pic)

BANGKOK: Thai students held rare flashmob protests on Wednesday as anger at the dissolution of a stridently anti-military opposition party simmers in a kingdom with a long history of raucous street politics.

Universities across the country have seen rallies since the Future Forward Party was dissolved last Friday over an alleged illegal loan by its billionaire founder.

The party won 6.3 million votes in elections last March, earning the loyalty of millennials with its radical agenda to expunge the powerful Thai army from politics.

The flickering of protests comes after several years of quiet enforced by military rule, with groups of high school students joining the march into the streets and calls for more rallies bouncing around social media.

“There is a lot of abuse of power and inequality in this country,” third-year student Fon told AFP at a downtown Bangkok campus, where hundreds gathered as evening fell.

“This is my first time taking part in a protest – but it is necessary,” she added.

Analysts say the dissolution of Future Forward – and the ban of key members from politics including charismatic founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – could nudge the kingdom back towards mass protests that have scored much of the last 15 years of Thai history.

Thai universities have been hotbeds of protest in the past.

Bloody crackdowns in the 1970s at Thammasat, a key radical university in Bangkok, are etched into the memory of the pro-democracy movement, which has been routinely smothered in the wake of coups by the arch-royalist military.

Discontent is simmering across the country.

Thailand’s economy is being squeezed by drought, high household debt and the impact of the coronavirus which has hammered the vital tourist industry at peak season.

The protests also come as the government of Prayut Chan-O-Cha faces a no-confidence vote in parliament later this week.

Without Future Forward, the increasingly unpopular former army chief should comfortably stave off the motion.

But the debate is raising awkward questions of his government.

On Wednesday Prayut denied allegations the army – which he helmed during a 2014 coup – used taxpayer money to fund an online campaign targeting his political rivals.

Presenting evidence from an army whistleblower, opposition lawmaker Wirote Lukana-adisorn said the military had launched “information operations” to hammer anti-establishment critics with large social media followings.

Prayut said “there was no policy” of trolling opponents of the military and his aligned government.