Thai­land: big­gest democ­racy protests in years held as mil­i­tary junta de­lays elec­tions

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Han­nah El­lis-Petersen in Bangkok

Ten­sions con­tinue to mount in Thai­land as the rul­ing mil­i­tary junta has sig­nalled that the long post­poned elec­tions will be de­layed yet again, the fifth de­lay in less than five years.

On Sun­day, in one of the big­gest pro-democ­racy protests in Thai­land in over four years, hun­dreds of peo­ple took to the streets for the third time in a week to crit­i­cise the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment for ap­pear­ing to re­nege on as­sur­ances the elec­tion would fi­nally hap­pen on 24 Fe­bru­ary.

It is the fifth time the mil­i­tary junta, which took over in a blood­less coup in 2014, has de­layed elec­tions and pre­vented the coun­try’s re­turn to democ­racy. Known as the Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der (NCPO), it has re­peat­edly de­clared the coun­try is “not ready” for elec­tions but the most re­cent de­lay has been at­trib­uted to con­cerns it would in­ter­fere with the up­com­ing coro­na­tion of the new king.

Over the week­end about 200 demon­stra­tors gath­ered at Bangkok’s Ratchapra­song In­ter­sec­tion – the sym­bolic spot where dozens of pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tors were killed in an army as­sault in 2010 – car­ry­ing ban­ners de­mand­ing an elec­tion by next month, while smaller groups gath­ered in other cities across Thai­land.

The army’s com­man­der in chief, Gen­eral Api­rat Kong­som­pong, pub­licly con­demned the pro­test­ers, say­ing they were “bent on caus­ing trou­ble”.

“They are be­ing told to think this way, or­dered to be­have this way, think­ing in one sin­gle mode with­out tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion other fac­tors which are rea­son­able and with­out look­ing at the con­sti­tu­tion,” Aparit, who is also sec­re­tary gen­eral of the NCPO, told a me­dia con­fer­ence.

While many in Thai­land are scep­ti­cal about the promised elec­tions ever tak­ing place, the Fe­bru­ary date seemed al­most se­cure af­ter a promis­ing an­nounce­ment by the elec­tion com­mis­sion late last year. The ban on po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and gath­er­ings of more than five peo­ple was also lifted in late De­cem­ber, the strong­est in­di­ca­tor that elec­tions would go ahead.

But elec­tion hopes were dashed again in early Jan­uary when the mil­i­tary failed to is­sue the awaited of­fi­cial de­cree, which for­malises the elec­tion date. Days later, deputy prime min­is­ter Wis­sanu Krea-ngam in­di­cated the poll would be post­poned be­cause it could in­ter­fere with rit­u­als and prepa­ra­tions for the coro­na­tion of Thai­land’s King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn, which will be held on 4-6 May.

The elec­tion com­mis­sion has not yet for­mally an­nounced the post­pone­ment but the on­go­ing de­lay in the de­cree now makes it highly likely.

Thai­land’s last of­fi­cial elec­tion was eight years ago, in 2011, and oc­curred fol­low­ing months of pro-democ­racy protests by ac­tivists known as the “red shirts”, and saw the elec­tion of Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra, Thai­land’s first fe­male prime min­is­ter and the sis­ter of for­mer prime min­is­ter Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra. An­other poll was held again in 2014, but it was later in­val­i­dated by the con­sti­tu­tional court, and the mil­i­tary took power in a coup shortly af­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to Thai­land’s new con­sti­tu­tion, which skews the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem heav­ily in favour of main­tain­ing mil­i­tary power, an elec­tion must hap­pen by 9 May.

Pho­to­graph: Run­groj Yongrit/EPA

Pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tors hold pic­tures of Thai prime min­is­ter and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha on Sun­day af­ter elec­tions look set tobe de­layed again.

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