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Thousands rally behind Thai anti-establishment frontman

Protesters held signs calling for democracy and flashed a three-finger salute, a rallying symbol used by the Future Forward Party that got more than six million votes in the election.

Thai politician and leader of the opposition Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks to supporters at a rally in Bangkok on December 14, 2019. Picture: AFP

BANGKOK – Thousands rallied in Bangkok behind the popular leader of an upstart anti-establishment party on Saturday, in the first major protest since March elections returned a junta-aligned government to power.

Protesters held signs calling for democracy and flashed a three-finger salute, a rallying symbol used by the Future Forward Party that got more than six million votes in the election, thanks to mostly young Thais weary of the military's role in politics.

The party's popular billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit called for those who could "no longer tolerate the current social conditions" to come out in a flash mob demonstration.

"We want to show the power of the people who will not surrender," he shouted in a megaphone to gathered supporters.

"Today we stand together and we want to tell them that we are not afraid," he yelled to people chanting "long live democracy".

Police told AFP Saturday that roughly 150 "unarmed" officers would be deployed to Bangkok's tourist-friendly downtown shopping district for the rally.

"I don't think we have a real democracy," said 27-year-old Nithiwadee, who held a sign calling for the constitution to be amended.

"This party has the bravery to say what others do not," she added.

Under junta rule which followed a coup in 2014 there have been no massive rallies, and March's elections -- governed under a military-scripted constitution -- reinstated former junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha as prime minister.

Future Forward's popularity has rattled the military and its allies, and its executives have been battered by legal woes since the election.

The latest threatens the party with dissolution over alleged illegal loans from Thanathorn -- a case submitted Friday to a court that stripped his MP status last month.

The 41-year-old leader has repeatedly said the cases against him and FFP are politically motivated.

Thailand's political scene has been dominated by violence since 2006, with street protests devolving into blood-soaked disorder.

In 2010, the military -- led by then-army chief Prayut -- opened fire on protesters gathered in downtown Bangkok, killing more than 90.

Thailand's courts have played a central role in taking out political threats to the establishment and no civilian government has completed its term since 2006.

The country has seen more than a dozen coups since 1932.