Around 1,000 people protested in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Sunday against the construction of homes for officials on forested land flanking a revered mountain, in one of the largest shows of dissent under junta rule. Public frustration has been mounting over the project since aerial images of several dozen officials’ homes – carved into the green foothills of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain – started circulating on social media earlier this year.
On Sunday a huge crowd of protesters, many wearing green ribbons, called for the demolition of the buildings as they marched through Chiang Mai, the biggest city in Thailand’s mountainous north. “About 1,000 people gathered… since 7:30am to protest against the houses,” Chiang Mai police officer Jirasak Sriprasert said. Protesters say the mountain, which looms over Chiang Mai and hosts a hugely popular temple believed to hold a relic of the Buddha, is a sacred site and conservation area.
But officials have defended the housing project for judges and other court officials, saying it was carried out legally on a patch of government-owned land near the national park that covers the rest of the mountain. The controversy has touched on long-running frustration over special treatment granted to Thai officials and elites – often at the expense of the public and the environment. “We want the demolition of the houses and a return of the forest,” the rally’s organisers said in a statement.
“Bring back the forest to Doi Suthep. Bring back the forest to people.” The march went ahead in defiance of a ban on protests imposed by the junta that seized power in 2014. The government, which says it is preparing a return to democracy next year, has faced a growing number of protests in recent months, although they are fairly small.