THAILAND: Democracy protest passes peacefully

Protesters attend first major rally since Sept. 19 coup

Bangkok Post
Monday, December 11, 2006

By Onnucha Hutasingh

Some 1,000 protesters turned out yesterday demanding the departure of the Council for National Security (CNS) and the interim government led by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to bring about the return of the 1997 constitution and fresh elections.

In what was the first major rally since the coup d'etat on Sept 19 and the government's decision to lift martial law in Bangkok and 40 other provinces, the demonstrators, some of which were supporters of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, joined force with the clear message.

"People are not beggars. We have our dignity. We won't accept a constitution of the military," said Sombat Boonngamanong, the leader of the Sept 19 Network, named after the day the military forcibly took over power from Mr Thaksin.

The rally took place as CNS leader and army chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin said the army would not hold on to power and was ready to leave once the new constitution is in place.

But Mr Sombat said the coup d'etat had already undermined democracy by tearing up the much lauded 1997 constitution.

The interim charter and the next constitution should be boycotted because they were actually engineered by the military, he said.

The group demanded the immediate revival of the 1997 constitution and a new election. The rally coincided with Constitution Day to show that it disagreed with the destruction of the 1997 constitution by the coup.

The protesters plan to rally at Sanam Luang every Sunday from now on, and other anti-coup groups will hold similar demonstrations on Fridays and Saturdays.

Yesterday's protest began at Sanam Luang before moving on to the Democracy Monument on nearby Ratchadamnoen Avenue after about two hours of speeches criticising the CNS and Gen Surayud's interim government.

Protesters were joined at the monument by the Democracy Federation led by activists Weng Tojirakarn, Sant Hathirat and former senator Prateep Ungsongtham-Hata.

Another protesting group called White Dove 2006 had its own stage near Thammasat University, but attracted only around 30 people including some pro-Thaksin activists who earlier this year clashed with anti-Thaksin protesters in Bangkok. Demonstrators there also demanded the immediate return of the constitution.

Another stage was set up opposite the Supreme Court where protest leaders delivered a similar message to an audience of some 50 people.

Many of those who joined the rally said they could not rely on the CNS, the interim government or the National Legislative Assembly as they noticed those currently in power were simply exchanging privileges through a system of reciprocity like previous governments.

During their march and upon their arrival at the monument, protesters continually shouted for the ouster of Gen Sonthi, assistant army chief Saprang Kalayanamitr, Prime Minister Surayud and Privy Council chairman Prem Tinsulanonda.

The number of protesters rose to about 1,000 at its peak yesterday evening.

Before dispersing, demonstrators also lit candles and surrounded the monument to symbolise their stance to protect democracy.

Gen Sonthi said he was aware that many people, especially democracy advocates, were dissatisfied with the coup and said he wanted to assure them soldiers had no will to stay on in political power.

"I believe soldiers don't want to put themselves in politics," Gen Sonthi told a seminar at the Army Club.

"And they are not crazy with power. We just want to see peace in the nation."

Gen Sonthi reiterated his reasons for staging the coup and revoking the 1997 constitution, widely seen as the best charter the kingdom has had since democracy set its roots 74 years ago.

"In fact every version of the constitution is good. What needs to be fixed is their users," he said.

He blamed the deposed Thaksin government for allegedly exploiting flaws in the 1997 version to abuse its political power by controlling parliament and state agencies.

That, Gen Sonthi said, forced him to lead the coup to overthrow the government through non-democratic means.

Despite its critics, a recent Abac poll also showed many people still supported the CNS and the government with up to 65% of respondents saying they were satisfied with its work.

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