Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Protesters In Thailand Turn Out Despite Government Crackdown


There are protests in Thailand's capital today. Anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok are demanding the country's prime minister step down.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

KING: That's from a rally yesterday. Michael Sullivan is in Bangkok today. Good morning, Michael.


KING: What's it like there?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's starting to heat up. The protesters have been really cagey about announcing specific times or places for their rally venues in the past few days in order to prevent police from having time to block them. And they did the same thing today as well, waiting until very late in the afternoon before announcing three rally venues here in Bangkok. And now protesters have flocked to those sites.

On Saturday and Sunday, the police shut down much of Bangkok's public transportation system, the subway and the Skytrain, both days to try to keep people from getting to the rallies. But that didn't work so well. Two separate demonstrations in central Bangkok drew thousands of people, mobilized by social media and messaging apps. And, tonight, the rally started during rush hour on a weekday, so shutting down public transportation wasn't really an option for the police, as the protesters surely knew. But the rallies so far tonight are peaceful.

KING: You know, the government has warned it won't tolerate more protests, and yet people are coming out anyway, as you've just described. What does that tell us?

SULLIVAN: It tells us that the government is a little bit reluctant to follow through on this talk of cracking down, that - they just haven't done it. I mean, on Thursday morning, they announced that - this special state of emergency. But on Friday, yeah, they cracked down, but since then, over the weekend, they just didn't. And they made no real attempt to break up Saturday or Sunday's protests once they were underway. Let's see what happens over the next couple hours. What's already clear is that the protesters tonight aren't backing off their demands.

KING: The main demand is that the country's prime minister step down. What else do they want? And remind us - how did we get here?

SULLIVAN: We got here after a 2014 coup. And the man who led that coup is the current general-turned-prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha. They say that 2019 election that happened just last year was rigged by Prayut and the military, charges he denies. The protesters want a new constitution written to replace the military-drafted one. They want an end to harassment of activists. And they're asking for a curb on the power of Thailand's monarchy or king. They want the monarchy to function within a constitutional framework, which they say it doesn't.

KING: And it sounds like, based on what you've described, if there is an advantage here that the protesters have, it's that they've been able to evolve. As the government makes a move, they've been able to kind of countermove.

SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah. And, in fact, they seem to be borrowing some of the be-water tactics of the protesters in Hong Kong, some of whom are offering support on social media to these student-led demonstrators. Pop-up rallies, umbrellas and, yeah, just adaptation - and over the weekend here, you started seeing more umbrellas and more helmets and more goggles, too, as the demonstrators appear to be digging in for the long haul.

For its part, the government today tightened the screws a bit by saying it would shut down four local media organizations which had been broadcasting these demonstrations live. It says it did this on national security grounds. I would expect to see more of this in the next couple of days as the government tries to keep the protests and their message from spreading. Human rights groups say more than 80 demonstrators and many protest leaders have been detained. Let's see where it goes from here.

KING: OK. Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Thanks, Michael.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.