Thai politician and leader of the opposition Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit arrives at a rally in Bangkok on December 14, 2019. (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

A Tale of Political Walk and Run Rallies in Thailand

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A pro-government "Walk to Support Uncle" rally and an anti-government "Run to Oust Uncle" assembly have drawn similar numbers of participants, reflecting the political divide in Thailand.

Two rallies, organized as exercise events by supporters and opponents of the government of General Prayut Chan-ocha, respectively, were held in Thailand on Sunday, 12 January. The rallies sent out contrasting political messages on what kind of world — dormant or awake — the participants wanted to live in.

The two competing events were the anti-government “Wing Lai Lung” — meaning “Run to Oust Uncle — and the pro-government “Doen Chia Lung” — “Walk to Support Uncle”. They took place in different parks in Bangkok and sites in many other provinces.

While numerous elements of the two events were different, the two groups both played with the same word from Prime Minister Prayut’s nickname, “Lung Tu” or “Uncle Tu”. The Thai word lung refers to a man who is older than one’s parents. But the term could convey a sense of either respect or disrespect. On one hand, being a lung represents seniority, maturity or experience. On the other hand, it could imply being old-fashioned, backward or anachronistic.

Organizers of the two events claimed that they drew around the same number of participants. More than 14,000 people registered to join the run to oust the uncle at Bangkok’s Suan Rot Fai Park, while the pro-government group said that its walk at the capital’s Lumphini Park, 14 kilometres away, was attended by 13,000 people. “Wing Lai Lung” events also took place in 27 other provinces throughout the country, with between hundreds and thousands of participants at each event.

The principal organizers of the two events gave different views on their motivations. Chulalongkorn University student Tanawat Wongchai, who was behind the anti-government run, said that the group wanted to reaffirm freedom and to express its opinion about the impact of what the general did in governing since the 2014 coup. The organizers of the pro-regime walk wanted to be known only as Admin Jane and Admin Wan, reflecting their roles as Facebook page administrators. But the two women apparently have strong connections with supporters of Prayut’s government who want the general’s regime to remain in power for the sake of stability.

The demographics of those in attendance at the two events also reflected their respective senses of urgency. While older people, notably retired civil servants, chose to join the slow “walk” to support the uncle, members of a younger and more energetic generation, as well as people of working age, preferred the faster “run” in their bid to remove a leader who has governed the country for long time.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that he did not want to see such activities in the future, as they deepened social division.

Well known participants in the run included billionaire politician and Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, together with his wife and children and the party’s spokesperson Pannika Wanich. Dr Surapong Suebwonglee, who served in ministerial posts in Thaksin Shinawatra’s and Samak Sundaravej’s cabinets joined former election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn and many anti-government activists among those also seen at the run. Famous figures participating in the walk included ultra-royalist military physician Major General Dr Rienthong Naenna, who recently announced that he would not to do business with any anti-monarchists or accept their blood donations at his Mongkutwattana Hospital; a star singer beloved of Thai elites, Haruthai Muangboonsri; and senior officials of state agencies, such as the deputy director general of the Department of Public Relations.

Young runners, in the main mid-ranking employees and students said, they wanted General Prayut to step down to pave the way for younger political leaders to run the country. They blamed Uncle Tu for his poor performance in managing the Thai economy. Many of them joined the run with posters and banners saying that they hated the dictator or were running to oust a dinosaur. Meanwhile, older walkers told the media that participants their own pro-Prayut event were people over the age of 50 who had experienced the good old days. They did not want to see any more chaos, such as the student uprisings of October 1973 and 1976, the bloody May of 1992, or the Red Shirt unrest of March-May 2010. They said that Thailand under Prayut was stable and not all bad. They were worried that youngsters could ignite a Hong-Kong-style uprising in the country.

Prime Minister Prayut himself said that the activities of both the running and walking groups were useless for the country. Members of the younger generation in particular should spend their time helping the government construct good things. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that he did not want to see such activities in the future, as they deepened social division.

While Thai authorities say that they guarantee freedom of expression and assembly under the law, security officials in many provinces summoned some organizers of and participants in the anti-government run for questioning. They threatened to take legal action against these people for violating the law on public assembly. Wing Lai Lung organizer Tanawat has revealed on Facebook that police from Bangkok’s Bang Sue station issued a warrant summoning him to report to authorities concerning the illegal activities that he organised on 12 January. He could face charges of violating the law by holding a political assembly without permission. A university student from the Southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat also reported via Facebook that he had been taken by campus authorities and the police for questioning after posting pictures showing his participation in the run on social media. Officials told him that having joined the run might affect his student status and the reputation of the university.

Although Prayut’s government managed to strengthen support in parliament after the defection of opposition politicians to his coalition and was thus able to win the smooth approval of its budget bill the day before the run and the walk, such paranoid reactions to the recent run reflect deep insecurity in the regime.