Pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Bangkok after Premier Prayuth Chan-ocha’s parliamentary allies helped him survive a no-confidence vote called after rising public anger at his government and its handling of the latest coronavirus outbreak.
Thousands marched through Bangkok’s commercial center Saturday shortly after lawmakers voted 264 to 208 to knock down the motion brought by the opposition against Prayuth, a former army chief, who has clung to power since leading a 2014 coup.
Thailand has been trapped on a carousel of coups, mass protests and short-lived civilian governments for 15 years. As army chief, Prayuth toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and has since transformed into a civilian leader, backstopped by a fully appointed senate, the military, business elite and all-important monarchy.
Protesters say he has presided over an increasingly authoritarian government, while inequality has soared during his seven-year tenure.
Anger is bubbling among the mainly young protesters who are back on the streets nightly in large numbers after 18 months of calls for political reform, including to the once untouchable monarchy.
On Saturday, demonstrators found their planned routes to embassies blocked by shipping containers topped with razor wire, while hundreds of riot police corralled them away from sensitive sites. As night fell, hardcore protesters hurled firecrackers toward police lines.
“Inside or outside parliament, they hold all the power,” Baifern Benjama, 19, told VOA.
“When they cling onto power like this all we can do is take to the streets.”
Three no confidence motions 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 building and warned that could tip the country toward violence, with Prayuth refusing to give any ground.
“Non-violence won’t work against this regime,” said Billie, 22, giving one name. “I can’t just stand and watch. I had to come out to protest and everyone else should, too.”
Prayuth’s government has come under intense pressure over its handling of the pandemic, which has killed 12,537 since April 1 in the deadliest outbreak so far.
Just 13 percent of the country has been fully inoculated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, raising questions about the sluggish rollout and a flip-flopping vaccine procurement strategy.
The government has defended its pandemic response, pointing to an uptick in the vaccination rate over recent weeks as a sign of its efforts in the face of a crisis without precedent.
Speaking after the failed bid to vote him out, the famously gruff Prayuth swatted away questions of his desire to carry on against mounting protests.
“My heart is like a fist, the fist of the prime minister,” Prayuth said from his car window, before punching his chest twice and driving off.
Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy has taken its worst battering since 1997; household debt is soaring and tourists who accounted for 20%-25% of GDP pre-pandemic are not expected back in serious numbers for several months.
The months of anti-government protests have frayed the credibility of the conservative establishment, with a mix of anger and ridicule pouring across social media as the government struggles to get a grip on the pandemic and the ensuing economic pain it has heaped on Thais.
Experts say the momentum had been building toward an early general election before the scheduled 2024 poll. But Prayuth’s latest political escape act in parliament has potentially stalled that progress.
“But our politics is still so shaky and there’s still a chance for a dissolution of the parliament,” Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the second biggest opposition party, Move Forward, said after the vote. “Political mathematics is one thing, but we will have to see if that plays out into the government’s legitimacy.”
Experts warn the ongoing political instability will further weaken an economy that was already one of Asia’s least equal before the pandemic wiped out millions of jobs.
But the prognosis if Prayuth clings to power for the long term is bleak, according to Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a legal scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“If Prayuth stays in power, we’re not just going nowhere, we’re going backwards,” he added.
Another major rally is expected Sunday, this time organized by the Red Shirt supporters of former prime minister Yingluck and her family dynasty, for a key Bangkok intersection.