Thousands turn out to ‘Run Against Dictatorship’ in Thailand

Runners call for gov’t of Prayuth Chan-ocha to go, in peaceful event that was followed by rival walk backing Prayuth.

Supporters of the anti-military FFP give the three-fingered salute of resistance made popular in The Hunger Games film [Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]

Bangkok, Thailand – Daylight had barely broken when Nakorn W, 45, started limbering up and double-checking his laces. He was in one of Bangkok’s largest parks, surrounded by thousands of other runners ready to begin their day with some exercise and a dose of dissent. 

Coming out to “Run against dictatorship” or in Thai, “Wing Lai Lung”, which means “run to oust the uncle” – a reference to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who is known as Uncle Tu – was their way of showing their rejection of the establishment. 

As the sun rose, organisers started blasting out Rap Against Dictatorship’s controversial rap song, My Country Has It, which slams the government for restricting citizen’s rights. 

As the music blared, runners started the six-kilometre (3.7 mile) route around the city’s Wachirabenchathat or Rot Fai Park to shouts of “Out with the dictatorship”. 

Nakorn, a serial entrepreneur from the capital, told Al Jazeera he thought the turnout of people of all ages was remarkable. At least 10,000 people registered for the run, but organisers said about double that turned out on the day.

“For many of us, we just want justice to be raised to a higher standard,” Nakorn said.

ThailandThousands registered to take part in Sunday’s Run Against Dictatorship which started before dawn in a Bangkok park [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera] 

“It doesn’t matter who the prime minister is for us, we just want justice. Most business people feel that the economy hasn’t improved. We have suffered and we miss better times. We run today to tell the government that we are not happy. “

Increasing unhappiness

The run is the latest demonstration of discontent against Prayuth’s government and the establishment. 

In mid-December last year, the Future Forward Party (FFP), which came third in last year’s election, held a rally calling for an end to the current government, demands that were echoed again on Sunday.

The FFP is facing a barrage of legal charges and its charismatic billionaire leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has been disqualified from parliament.

Thanathorn and other FFP members took part in the run, with Thanathorn finishing the circuit surrounded by scores of supporters eager for selfies with him. Many runners were emotional after finishing the run.

Police presence was small and there was no conflict or significant sign of tension. 

The political climate has been contentious since 2014 when Prayuth, then a general, took control in a coup. 

In the much-delayed general election last year, the FFP’s strong showing stunned Thailand and the political elite even as Prayuth’s military-backed party secured enough votes for him to return to power as a civilian prime minister.

ThailandThanathorn Juangroongruangkit completed the circuit too, surrounded by his supporters [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera] 

Pro-democracy parties have said the election was a sham designed to keep the military in power, while FFP supporters have alleged it was “rigged”.

In the months since, discontent with the government has grown, with Thanathorn calling on his supporters to vent their frustration at the increasing number of legal charges facing the opposition parties in general and FFP in particular.

Tanawat Wongchai, a student activist and one of the organisers of the run, told Al Jazeera: “Today was more than what we expected. We saw around 20,000 people come out to tell the government that we no longer accept their oppression.”  

Another event is planned in the coming months, he added, probably in Chiang Mai.

Military control

Titipol Phakdeewanich, professor of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, told Al Jazeera that the spike in political activity was a sign that a large proportion of Thais, young and old, were dissatisfied with the current government. 

He said the protests were galvanising the population, but while more people might head to the streets, demonstrations would not be on the scale of places like Hong Kong. 

ThailandSome people dressed up for the six-kilometre run [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

“The aim and intention of the event is to show that the people don’t want the military to maintain control of the country,” Phakdeewanich said.

“Although there may be a lot of people coming out, I don’t think it will escalate to what we’re seeing in Hong Kong, or even like other large protests here. We still have a large number of Thais who are happy to be in control by the military.”

“People have this idea that [Thailand] is more peaceful now with the current government, but it’s an illusion. Some people think pushing for democracy could lead to confrontations on the street. But democracy is not the cause of conflict – it helps people live together when they disagree – when they have different opinions.”

Across town at Lumphini Park, a much smaller crowd got together for a counter “walk” in support of Prayuth. The event, named “Walk to Cheer Uncle,” was held immediately following the anti-government run.

Not long before the run came to an end, a 20-something-year-old protester, who would only give his nickname, “Off”,  told Al Jazeera that he still felt hopeful that change could come.

“It’s amazing to see this,” he said. “We all still believe that we have a great country. So we’ve all come out to show support that we want something different.” 

Source: Al Jazeera