BANGKOK, Thailand – Embattled Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on Thursday revoked his mostly ineffectual “serious state of emergency” in Bangkok, one day after saying he “will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents.”
The Royal Thai Government Gazette published his order, which took effect at noon.
Prayut clamped Bangkok under a “serious state of emergency” on October 15, extending an existing state of emergency declared in March to fight the coronavirus.
The emergency edict banned gatherings in public of five or more people, distributing or publishing data that the government perceived to be instigating fear or distorting information, and forbid using public transportation or buildings for dissent.
Tens of thousands of protesters, however, repeatedly defied the emergency edict by continuing to gather for daily demonstrations, which started on October 13.
Security forces, enjoying immunity under the emergency edict, could detain people for 30 days in military camps without access to a lawyer.
Police have detained almost 80 people during the recent protests, police spokesman Major General Yingyos Thepchamnong said on Wednesday.
Prayut had included a promise to lift the edict during his surprise “de-escalate” offer on Wednesday.
But that offer may be refused by protesters, who want him to resign within three days and parliament to be dissolved instead of being used for negotiations because its senate was appointed.
The prime minister had presented what he portrayed as a sweet conciliatory offer, but it came with a sour squeeze.
Police, hours later, arrested a young woman who announced the three-day deadline on Wednesday, as well as unveiling a mock resignation letter for Prayut to sign.
“If the protesters seek a solution through tough street action, maybe they will win by side-stepping the parliamentary process,” Prayut predicted in a nationwide broadcast on Wednesday evening. “Or maybe they won’t. Both have happened in the past.
“If the state seeks to make problems go away through only tough action, maybe it will. Or maybe it won’t. Both have happened in the past, too.”
Prayut hinted that the monarchy was not to be harmed, despite the protesters’ demand to “reform” King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s power and wealth.
“A very important part of what makes every Thai a Thai are our institutions, rooted in our culture and in centuries of tradition and values,” the prime minister said.
“When we damage our heritage, we also lose a very important part of what makes us all Thai and what makes us all very special in the world.” .
Without mentioning riot police who dispersed protesters by repeatedly blasting them with chemical-laden water cannons in a Bangkok street on October 16, Prayut said: “Last Friday night, we saw things that should never be in Thailand.
“We saw terrible crimes being committed against the police using metal rods and huge cutting implements in brutal attacks, with the aim of severely wounding fellow Thais.”
Then he presented his lopsided deal.
“I am currently preparing to lift the state of serious emergency in Bangkok, and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents.
“I ask the protesters to reciprocate with sincerity, to turn down the volume on hateful and divisive talk, and to let us, together, disperse this terrible dark cloud before it moves over our country.
“Let us respect the law and parliamentary democracy, and let our views be presented through our representatives in parliament.”
Protesters have repeatedly demanded parliament be dissolved after Prayut agrees to resign.
Parliament’s 500 members of the House of Representatives were elected, but its 250-member Senate was appointed by Prayut’s government.
One of Parliament’s elected opposition leaders, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – who targeted Prayut and the US-trained military supporting him – was forced out of politics by the Constitutional Court for violating election laws. Asia Times spoke to Thanathorn earlier this year.
In January, the court dissolved his Future Forward Party, deleting their 80 seats in parliament.
A new prime minister would need support from at least 375 parliament members from a total of 750.
Parliament is to hold an unpredictable “special session” on October 26 and 27.
In contrast to Prayut’s self-proclaimed “right decision,” police arrested Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon, who read out the protesters’ three-day deadline for Prayuth to quit, and who presented a resignation letter at the gates of Government House for him to sign.
If he did not, the protesters said they would stage more street demonstrations.
Police arrested 25-year-old Patsaravalee for allegedly breaking the now-lifted emergency law during a protest on October 15.
“Our fight is not finished, as long as he does not resign,” Patsaravalee told a cheering crowd at the hurriedly erected, barbed-wire barricades protecting Government House.
“If he does not resign in three days, he will face the people again,” she said. “I am not worried,” she told reporters as police escorted her away.
“This is the government’s game.”
Some people wonder if Prime Minister Prayut can stay at the top, who might replace him and will bullets be used against the tens of thousands of so far peaceful, idealistic youths demanding changes.
Thailand’s authoritarian leader seized power six years ago in a military coup, but now appears bewildered, vulnerable and unable to stop the street protests against the government and monarchy.
Many Thais predict the protesters will not be able to curtail the vast influence and wealth of 68-year-old King Vajiralongkorn.
“Now it is understood that the country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” the King said in a speech on October 16.
Prayut agreed, and recently said: “What the government needs to do is to protect the monarchy. There are millions of people who are loyal to the monarchy, and they are in all provinces. So please help us defuse the tension.”
University students and school children have been blocking afternoon traffic in cities scattered around the country, voicing often vulgar speeches against Prayut and the monarchy, and disappearing at about 8pm.
Some of what protesters shout at rallies, spray paint as graffiti, post on the internet and say in news interviews about the monarchy is illegal under the constitution and a harsh lese-majeste law. The punishment can be 15 years in prison.
When he was army chief of staff, Prayut seized power in a 2014 coup by inviting the elected civilian government’s ministers for talks in a Bangkok army base, locking them in a room when they arrived and declaring himself Thailand’s new leader.
Prime Minister Prayut was later hosted in the White House by President Trump, who wants tighter links with America’s non-NATO treaty ally in Southeast Asia.
Prayut’s successor could be new Army Chief General Narongphan Jitkaewtae, analysts said.
Asked if a coup was possible, General Narongphan, 57, told reporters on October 6: “Every army chief has been asked this question and he invariably says the chance is zero, on condition that no one causes a conflict that leads to violence and unrest.”
General Narongphan is “considered extremely loyal to the current monarch,” said Paul Chambers, an international affairs special advisor at Thailand’s Naresuan University.
“The army may not continue supporting Prayut, given a growing number of soldiers see him as slow to crack down on protesters which the army perceives as inimical to the palace and armed forces,” Chambers wrote.
“As the army chief and historically the most likely person to stage a coup, General Narongphan must take the lead and make a clear, unequivocal stance that the army will never engage in non-democratic affairs from now on,” the Bangkok Post said in an October 9 editorial.
“A half-hearted promise like the one he made after taking office this week is sorely inadequate,” it said under a headline: “No More Coups, Please.”
Another possible successor is hard-line former Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong, who trained in America.
“The disease that cannot be cured is the hatred of the nation,” Apirat declared after protesters expanded anti-Prayut rallies and demanded limits to the monarchy.
Protesters are led by shadowy figures who “are working with some foreign-educated and far-left academics to plant wrong ideas into the minds of students,” Apirat said in a speech at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters one year ago.
“The old [communist] members who became politicians and academics still have their implanted communist chips,” in their brains, he said echoing Cold War rhetoric.
Thailand’s jungle-based, tiny Communist Party surrendered in 1988 and received amnesty.
Apirat’s father, the late General Sunthorn Kongsompong, staged a coup in 1991.
That coup was followed by a new constitution and parliamentary election in March 1992.
The resulting government’s coalition appointed former Army Chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon as prime minister.
Suchinda’s regime ended in what has become known as “Black May” – 1992’s disputed official death toll of at least 52 of the 200,000 pro-democracy protesters who demonstrated in Bangkok against him becoming prime minister. Unofficial tolls put the number of casualties considerably higher.
In 2019, Apirat was rewarded for his staunch loyalty to King Vajiralongkorn and elevated to the Crown Property Bureau handling the monarch’s wealth.
On September 30, upon retirement from the military, Apirat was promoted to become a lord chamberlain in the royal household, operating on the King’s behalf.
Prime Minister Prayut may depart by splitting the protesters and agreeing to their demands to resign, dissolve parliament, allow fresh elections and amend the constitution to grant more political and human rights – but not “reforming” the monarchy.
A surprise military or civilian candidate might then be appointed temporary prime minister until a new parliament chooses a new leader.
Prayut, meanwhile, appears to have been outwitted by Free Youth and other protest groups who use Telegram’s encrypted app and online sites to suddenly announce rally locations and other information.
Their advisories include translations into Thai from Hong Kong’s Chinese-language protest manuals, advising a “be like water” mobility instead of occupying sites, plus what to wear and how to hide.
In response, authorities repeatedly shut Bangkok’s public metro rail services. But protesters arrived at rally sites by taxi, motorcycle and private vehicles.
Last Sunday, the regime made it illegal for anyone to photograph themselves at a rally and post that selfie online.
Police reportedly caught more than 10 people for the crime of taking selfies at protests, punishable by two years imprisonment and a US$1,330 fine.
However, protesters wearing anti-coronavirus masks continued to gleefully shoot selfies with dramatic scenes of tens of thousands of demonstrators in the background.
Police recently arrested three activists under a separate criminal law after other nearby protesters heckled a motorcade transporting Queen Suthida and her step-son Prince Dipangkorn, who is the heir apparent, while displaying their three-finger salute, inspired by the Hunger Games movie.
The men denied flashing three fingers or voicing any dissent during the brief incident in Bangkok on October 14. Punishment can be life imprisonment.
“Underneath the big demands for transparency and accountability of finance and the role in democratic society – and separation of monarchy from politics and the armed forces towards a kind of democratically-bounded throne – the situation down below on the ground is nuanced and complex,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who directs Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.
“It is unlikely to change quickly and sufficiently to end up with the ‘genuine constitutional monarchy’ as demanded by the student-led reform movement,” Thitinan wrote.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978 and author of the nonfiction book, Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. – Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York.