Tensions rise in Thailand ahead of fresh pro-democracy protest

Tensions rise in Thailand ahead of fresh pro-democracy protest
Student protesters gather at an anti-government rally at Srinakhrinwirot University in Bangkok on August 13, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 16 August 2020

Tensions rise in Thailand ahead of fresh pro-democracy protest

Tensions rise in Thailand ahead of fresh pro-democracy protest
  • Thailand has seen near-daily demonstrations for the past month by student-led groups
  • A rally last week — attended by some 4,000 demonstrators — also called for the abolition of a law protecting Thailand’s unassailable monarchy

BANGKOK: Protesters were set to rally in Bangkok Sunday against the government as tensions rose in the kingdom after the arrest of three activists leading the pro-democracy movement.
Thailand has seen near-daily demonstrations for the past month by student-led groups denouncing Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha — a former military chief who led the 2014 coup — and his pro-establishment administration.
Prominent student leader Parit Chiwarak, bailed a day after his arrest Friday night, vowed to attend Sunday’s rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.
“We will not disappoint you,” he told a crowd of supporters outside the police station after he was released.
Organizers expect thousands to participate. Hundreds of police personnel were seen at the venue before the scheduled start of the protest.
The protesters, partly inspired by the Hong Kong democracy movement, claim to be leaderless, and have relied mostly on social media campaigns to draw support across the country.
The hashtag “Give a deadline to dictatorship” and “Tag your friends to protest” started trending early Sunday on Twitter in Thailand.
The protesters are demanding an overhaul of the government and a rewrite of the 2017 military-scripted constitution, which demonstrators believe skewed last year’s poll in the favor of Prayut’s military-aligned party.
A rally last week — attended by some 4,000 demonstrators — also called for the abolition of a law protecting Thailand’s unassailable monarchy, and for a frank discussion about the royal institution’s role in Thailand.
Super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, flanked by the military and the kingdom’s billionaire business elite.
The draconian “112” law can see those convicted sentenced to up to 15 years in jail for each charge.

The growing boldness of the pro-democracy movement has angered the pro-royalist camp.
On Sunday, some 50 royalist protesters carrying portraits of the king gathered at the Democracy Monument — the same venue where the anti-government rally will take place later in the day.
“Long live the king,” shouted the royalists, dressed in yellow shirts — the king’s colors.
The day before student leader Parit’s arrest, Prayut said the protesters’ demands were “unacceptable” for the country’s majority, calling the pro-democracy movement “risky.”
He struck a more conciliatory tone in a televised speech later in the day, appealing for unity and saying the “future belongs to the young.”
Thailand has long seen a cycle of violent protests and coups, with the arch-royalist army staging more than a dozen putsches since the end of absolutism in 1932.
The growing discontent also comes as the kingdom goes through one of its worst economic periods since 1997 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Millions have been left jobless, and the crisis has exposed the inequalities in the Thai economy, which is perceived to benefit the elite, pro-military establishment.


US decision to withdraw troops dismays some Somalis

US Marines file into an amphibious vehicle for evacuation from Mogadishu, Somalia, after a bloody two-year UN peacekeeping mission. (Reuters/File)
Updated 41 min 43 sec ago

US decision to withdraw troops dismays some Somalis

US decision to withdraw troops dismays some Somalis
  • The US program to expand Danab to 3,000 men was supposed to continue until 2027, Sheikh said, but its future is unclear

ADDIS ABABA: US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Somalia in the waning days of his presidency triggered dismay on Saturday from some Somalis, who appealed to the incoming US president to reverse the decision.
“The US decision to pull troops out of Somalia at this critical stage in the successful fight against Al-Shabab and their global terrorist network is extremely regrettable,” Sen. Ayub Ismail Yusuf told Reuters in a statement, referring to the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab insurgency.
“US troops have made a huge contribution and had great impact on the training and operational effectiveness of Somali soldiers,” said Yusuf, a member of Somalia’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
He tagged US President-elect Joe Biden in a tweet criticizing the decision.
The Somali government could not immediately be reached for comment early on Saturday to Friday’s decision to withdraw almost all the roughly 700 US troops by Jan. 15.
Somalia’s fragile internationally backed government is due to hold parliamentary elections this month and national elections in early February, a precursor to the planned drawdown of the 17,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force.
US troops have been in Somalia, mostly supporting Somali special forces known as Danab in operations against Al-Shabab, whose attacks in nations like Kenya and Uganda have killed hundreds of civilians, including Americans.
Danab punches above its weight because regular forces are often poorly trained and equipped, frequently desert their posts or become enmeshed in power struggles between the national and regional governments.
If the withdrawal is permanent, “it will have a huge toll on counterterrorism efforts,” said Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years until 2019 as the Danab commander.
He fought alongside US forces, he said, and during his command two Americans and more than a hundred of his own men had died. Both US and Somali forces opposed the withdrawal, he said.
The US program to expand Danab to 3,000 men was supposed to continue until 2027, Sheikh said, but its future is unclear.
Airstrikes will likely continue from bases in Kenya and Djibouti, which could also provide a launchpad for cross-border operations. Rights group Amnesty International says the airstrikes have killed at least 16 civilians in the past three years.
The US withdrawal comes at a turbulent time in the region. Ethiopia, which is a major troop contributor to the peacekeeping forces and has thousands more troops in Somalia bilaterally, is distracted by an internal conflict that broke out last month. It has disarmed hundreds of its peacekeepers already.
Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but the entry of the peacekeeping force in 2008 helped incubate fledgling government structures that allowed for gradual reforms of the military, such as a biometric system to pay soldiers and the formation of Danab.
But many problems with the Somali military remain, including corruption and political interference. Perhaps a withdrawal will force Somalia to confront them, said Sheikh. Or perhaps it will make them worse.