Big rally turn-out surprises govt

Siam Pitak group plans to escalate protest action

Buoyed by what it calls a big turn-out, the Siam Pitak group is planning to hold its next rally against the Pheu Thai-led government within a month.

Anti-government protest groups turn up in force at the Royal Turf Club in the Nang Loeng area. The Pitak Siam group, the rally’s organiser, claimed the event drew 20,000 people, while police estimates put the number at a more modest 6,000. PATIPAT JANTHONG

Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired officer and the core organiser, believes the campaign is gathering momentum.

"A fresh rally will take place in a month," he said.

"We will assess the number of participants to see if we will move from the Royal Turf Club in Nang Loeng. It may be too small."

The large crowd is seen as a slap in the face for Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who estimated the protest number at 1,500-2,000.

The rally organiser, based on the registration book, claimed the crowd swelled to 20,000 while the city police gave an estimate of 6,000.

The event drew various anti-government groups including the multi-coloured-shirts led by Tul Sitthisomwong, former members of the Communist Party of Thailand, and supporters of the opposition Democrat Party.

Despite the absence of yellow shirt leaders, the Dhamma Army which is closely linked with yellow shirt leader Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, turned up in force.

Keynote speakers were also largely those who joined the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement such as Sqn Ldr Prasong Soonsiri, former secretary-general of the National Security Council, Surapong Chainam, a former Thai ambassador, Gen Pathompong Kesornsuk, former chief adviser to the Supreme Command, and Seri Wongmontha, a prominent political critic.

The rally kicked off with Gen Boonlert reading a statement with a pledge to fight off the anti-monarchy movement and expel the government.

In his address, Sqn Ldr Prasong asked the crowd to help head off five crises under the Yingluck administration: the debt crisis arising from populist policy; nepotism in national administration; escalating violence in the deep South and territorial disputes with Cambodia; absence of the rule of law; and the prime minister's leadership crisis.

Siam Pitak Sunday also launched a sign-up campaign seeking to enlist 1 million voters. The group plans to submit a petition to the government demanding it step down.

The rally ended about 7pm without incident.

A group of people who gather under the banner of Chao Thai Huajai Rak Sa-ngob [Thai People Who Love Peace] yesterday issued their own four demands to the government.

The group called on the government to quell red shirts' harassment of critics, protect the institution of the monarchy, serve the public rather than Thaksin and his cronies, and not to amend the charter to whitewash Thaksin.

Surachai Sirikrai, a political scientist from Thammasat University, said the big turnout reflected people's frustrations toward the government.

He said the movement could grow.

"It could be the Thai Spring because people are gaining more access to information," he said, noting that some red shirts might have defected.

According to Mr Surachai, the latest cabinet shake-up indicated the government put personal interest before the public interest.

Thaikorn Polsuwan, who led a group of northeastern people to join the rally, said the huge crowd was a slap in the face for Mr Chalerm.

He said organisers were split over the strategy, with one side wanting several small rallies, while the other wanted to make it quick.

"The government needs to be stopped before the country goes bankrupt as a result of massive loans," Mr Thaikorn said. "Judging from today's rally, we're gathering steam."

While admitting the large crowd was a surprise, Mr Chalerm insisted the campaign would not gain any momentum. "They really have nothing with which to topple the government," he said. "Moreover, the army chief has distanced himself from the campaign. Once the military turns its back on you, that's the end of the story," he said.

Air Force commander ACM Prajin Jantong rejected Gen Boonlert's call for the military to join the campaign. "We support royal initiatives, handle security threats... and help with the government's national development work. We don't get involved in politics," he said.

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Writer: Pradit Ruangdit, King-Oua Laohong & Wassana Nanuam