Thousands of anti-government protesters in Thailand donned sports gear in the pre-dawn darkness for the biggest political protest in the country in years.
Around 10,000 Thais joined a "run against dictatorship" on Sunday, shouting slogans and wielding three-finger salutes from the Hunger Games films in the largest show of political defiance since the 2014 coup.
The runners massed before dawn in a Bangkok park to take a stand against the government, which is led by former junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha and backed by a parliament stacked with MPs loyal to the military.
The run was led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the charismatic billionaire leader of a stridently anti-military political party which is facing the threat of dissolution.
Thanathorn has been stripped of his MP status and is facing a battery of legal charges.
"You can feel the anger of the people and their disappointment over the government," Thanathorn told AFP before the run.
About 12,000 people (according to the organizers) have come to Suan Rot Fai in the North of Bangkok to “Run Against Dictatorship” PM Prayut is nicknamed. Even tho this looks like a sports event, it’s arguable the biggest protest against the govt of PM Prayut in a while. pic.twitter.com/sV7tjVQasg— Saksith Saiyasombut (@SaksithCNA) January 12, 2020
"I think this is the first step to general change in Thailand," Thanathorn said.
Before the start, the runners shouted pro-democracy slogans and chanted "Get out, Prayut".
They also wielded the three-finger salute made famous by the blockbuster Hunger Games films as a symbol of freedom from authoritarian rule.
"I want a government that takes care of the people and spends money on our well-being and the environment instead of buying tanks and submarines," said runner Gig, dressed as a tank for the run.
Across Thailand – from Pattani province in the south to the northern tourist city Chiang Mai – thousands took part in similar runs, with participants flashing the three-fingered salute as they took off from the starting line.
Prayut held onto power after elections last year, with support from an army-appointed senate.
He now holds a slim parliamentary majority and faces a public increasingly vocal in its discontent with the sluggish economy and rule by elderly former generals.
A smaller, rival "Walk to Support Uncle" rally took place in another park at the same time, drawing thousands of mainly elderly supporters of Prayut, whose nickname is "Uncle Tu".
"We love our country, we love a government which can provide security to our country," said Vasuchart, 68, who only gave one name.
Famed Thai singer Au Haruethai, who attended the pro-Prayut walk, insisted the coup leader-turned-premier was elected "the democratic way".
"People should not use the word 'dictator'," she said.
Today’s protest against Thai dictator Prayut Chan-ocha has been joined by thousands of people. Meanwhile the rival pro-Prayut event is embarrassingly underwhelming. A small crowd of angry old people. pic.twitter.com/75Gs2ZtVM2— Andrew MacGregor Marshall (@zenjournalist) January 12, 2020
Thailand remains bitterly divided.
The contrasting demographics of the Sunday events reflected some splits in age, class and politics, with many older people leaning towards the army-aligned establishment and younger participants favouring Thanathorn's narrative of change.
The anti-government run comes less than 10 days before Thanathorn's Future Forward Party faces possible dissolution, accused of attempting to overthrow Thailand's constitutional monarchy.
Future Forward stunned Thailand's establishment by becoming the third largest political party after an election last March.
Despite his legal woes, Thanathorn retains a rock star-like appeal among his supporters.