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Thai premier 'worried' as pro-democracy student protests grow

Thousands of mostly young, black-clad protesters amassed at Bangkok's Democracy Monument in one of the city's largest shows of defiance in years
Thousands of mostly young, black-clad protesters amassed at Bangkok's Democracy Monument in one of the city's largest shows of defiance in years Aidan JONES AFP/File
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Bangkok (AFP)

Thailand's premier said Tuesday he was "worried" about a burgeoning student movement calling for the dissolution of his government, as pro-democracy protesters plot rallies and other creative displays of dissent across the kingdom.

His comments come days after thousands of mostly young, black-clad protesters amassed at Bangkok's Democracy Monument in one of the city's largest shows of defiance in years, shouting vitriolic chants directed at the pro-military establishment.

The students displayed an organisational savvy inspired by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and more than a dozen rallies are planned across the country in the coming week at local universities and city centres.

Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief, on Tuesday defended keeping emergency laws in place in Thailand, denying that the restrictions are being used to stifle freedoms as some critics have said.

"We are not using these laws against protesters... but what I'm worried about is their movements which authorities would have to manage carefully," he said.

"I understand the youths, but at the same time, I am also worried for their parents," he said.

Thailand's tumultuous politics has long been defined by often deadly street protests and coups, with a putsch-happy army stepping in to press the reset button whenever dissent crescendos to a fever pitch.

But an unprecedented pandemic has launched the kingdom's economy into a freefall, and anger is boiling against Prayut and his administration stacked with military and royalist allies.

Thailand has had student-led pro-democracy movements in the past, which have at times drawn deadly force from the military.

Saturday's protest at Democracy Monument displayed the deep well of discontent among young Thais, as students shouted for Prayut to step down.

They also called for the abolition of Thailand's strict royal defamation law, which protects the monarchy and the unassailable King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism.

While the gruff premier on Tuesday declined to comment on the issue, he said "the general people will not let these insults happen".

Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University warned that "the price of keeping these young Thais down without addressing their grievances" will increase.

"They are saying that they have had enough," he told AFP. "The absence of compromise and accommodation will also beget more dissent and opposition."

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