CHIANG MAI: More than a thousand people marched peacefully along Ratchadamnern Road in Muang district of this northern province on Sunday morning, demanding that housing being built for justice officials of the 5th Regional Appeals Court at Doi Suthep be demolished.
The protesters, wearing green ribbons to signify "people with green hearts", represented 47 different organisations but were united in their determination to see the housing demolished and the forest restored to the construction site in the foothills of Doi Suthep.
From Tha Phae city gate in the heart of Chiang Mai's old city, they marched along Ratchadamnern Road to pay homage to the statue of the Three Kings and prayed that the pristine environment be restored.
The protesters shouted the word "te-kwang", a word in the northern dialect that means "demolition", before dispersing after about two hours.
Public frustration has been mounting over the project since aerial images of several dozen officials' homes -- carved into the green foothills of Chiang Mai's Doi Suthep mountain -- started circulating on social media earlier this year.
Video from @DoiSuthepMountain Facebook account
"Around 1,250 people took part in the protest," Police Colonel Paisan, deputy commander of Chiang Mai Police told Reuters.
"The protesters were focused on environmental issues and not politics, and they cleaned the street afterwards," Pol Col Paisan said. He said the organisers made a proper request for the gathering beforehand and so the protest was allowed to proceed.
Protesters say the mountain, which looms over Chiang Mai and hosts a hugely popular temple believed to hold a relic of the Buddha, is a sacred site and conservation area.
But officials have defended the state housing project for judges and other court staff, saying it was carried out legally on a patch of government-owned land adjacent to the national park that covers the rest of the mountain.
The controversy has touched on long-running frustration over special treatment granted to Thai officials and elites -- often at the expense of the public and the environment.
"We want the demolition of the houses and a return of the forest," the rally's organisers said in a statement on Sunday.
"Bring back the forest to Doi Suthep. Bring back the forest to the people."
The march went ahead in defiance of a ban on political gatherings and protests imposed by the junta that seized power in 2014.
The regime, which says it is preparing a return to democracy next year, has faced a spate of demonstrations in months as impatience mounts over military repression and impunity for the wealthy and well-connected.
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(Video YouTube/Chiang Mai News)