BANGKOK – Thai police arrested nine pro-democracy activists, including two rappers, in a crackdown on growing protests that have emerged as the most serious threat to the government led by a former army general they accuse of incompetence and corruption.
Among those arrested was Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, a founding member of Rap Against Dictatorship, and a rapper from another group who both took to the stage during a July 18 rally. Dechathorn's hits like “Prathet Ku Mee” (What My Country’s Got) and “250 Bootlickers” have criticized the country's conservative leadership and lack of political freedoms.
The activists facing sedition charges have called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his administration to resign. The protests over the last two months, fanned by thousands of students, are the most serious threat yet to an ex-army chief who seized power in a 2014 military coup and then retained it in a 2019 election widely seen as rigged to guarantee his victory.
With key Cabinet posts still in the hands of former generals, opposition to the military’s continuing influence and Prayuth’s leadership has grown louder.
The protests have declared three core demands: holding new elections, amending the military-imposed constitution and ending the intimidation of critics of the government.
Protest leaders triggered controversy earlier this month when they expanded their original agenda, publicly criticizing Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for its reform.
Their action was virtually unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct and any criticism is normally kept private. A lese majeste law calls for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for anyone found guilty of defaming the king.
One of the activists who allegedly made critical remarks, Arnon Nampha, was arrested Wednesday and charged with sedition and violation of a public assembly law for participating in a Harry Potter-themed protest on Aug. 3.
The other eight political and labor activists and artists were arrested Wednesday and early Thursday on sedition and other offenses related to the July 18 protest, Arnon's lawyer, Weeranan Huadsri, said.
They were brought to the criminal court Thursday and flashed three-fingered salutes, a sign of resistance borrowed from the movie “The Hunger Games.” In the evening they were released on bail under the condition that they do not repeat their offenses, Arnon said.
Dozens of supporters were waiting outside the court, singing and chanting slogans such as “Down with dictatorship” and “Long live democracy.”
Arnon said he believes he can still attend rallies and speak up on the issues he raised.
“We’ve always affirmed that what we do isn't illegal and is allowed under the constitution. And it is done with the intention of seeing our society become fully democratic. And we are sure that what we are doing will benefit the country,” he said.
Human Rights Watch called on Thai authorities to drop all charges against the activists.
“The Thai government’s repeated promises to listen to dissenting voices have proven meaningless as the crackdown on pro-democracy activists continues unabated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based group. “The authorities should right their wrong and immediately drop the charges and release Arnon and other detained activists.”
The government's image has been tarnished by corruption scandals for which no one has been held accountable. The economy also has struggled to compete with its neighbors, even before the heavy damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the tourism industry and exports, the two top foreign currency earners.
___ Associated Press writer Busaba Sivasomboon contributed to this report.