Thai PM says all laws to be used against protesters

The protesters are also calling for the resignation of Mr Prayut and the rewriting of the Constitution. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Thursday (Nov 19) that all laws would be used against protesters who have demanded his removal, a new Constitution and reforms to the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The announcement came in a statement a day after thousands of protesters threw paint at Thai police headquarters in what they said was a response to the police use of water cannon and tear gas that hurt dozens on Tuesday.

"The situation is not improving and there is a risk of escalation to more violence. If not addressed, it could damage the country and the beloved monarchy," Mr Prayut said in a statement.

"The government will intensify its actions and use all laws, all articles, to take action against protesters who broke the law."

It did not specify whether this included Article 112, which forbids insulting the monarchy.

Mr Prayut said earlier this year that it was not being used for the moment at the request of the King.

Meanwhile, anti-government protesters are planning to expand their set of demands after generating what they described as significant support for a movement that has broken long-held taboos about publicly criticising the monarchy.

Following four months of regular street protests, the youth-led groups will also take on issues such as changes in the crown property laws and the recognition of same-sex marriage, according to Mr Arnon Nampa, one of the movement's most prominent leaders.

"People may think that this movement only talks about the monarchy - at the heart of the movement is actually equality and liberty," Mr Arnon said in an interview.

"Many protesters have fought for various issues to create a more equal society. The demand for monarchy reform really started from our fight for equality."

The Parliament voted on Wednesday to amend the nation's Constitution by setting up a charter rewriting committee, but rejected a push by pro-democracy groups to include changes to chapters governing the monarchy. And while the amendments may not result in changes the protesters are asking for, like monarchy reform, it is "a long-term fight", Mr Arnon said.

Mr Arnon, who was the first protest leader to publicly question the monarchy, said the movement has already "succeeded strategically in getting people to talk about these issues openly".

It has also prompted some reaction from the palace, with members of the royal family engaging with the public more often in the past few months.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn said earlier this month that Thailand is a "land of compromise" and that he loved the people "all the same".

But the protesters rejected his olive branch as well as the government's efforts to de-escalate the situation by attempting to set up a reconciliation committee and lifting the state of emergency to curb protests in Bangkok a week after it was declared.

The pro-democracy protest movement has escalated in recent days after police fired water cannons at the protesters and injured dozens on Tuesday. Several demonstrators also clashed with pro-royalist supporters, who have resisted changing the country's existing power structure and the monarchy's role - a confrontation that Mr Arnon expects would intensify next year.

Mr Prayut said on Wednesday that he had asked police to ensure the safety of all sides during the protests, and urged activists to respect the law and avoid violence.

Mr Arnon, like many of the movement's prominent leaders, has been arrested and released several times for staging protests and is facing charges that include sedition.

Royal reform is the most ambitious demand from the protesters, with calls for the monarch to no longer endorse coups, provide transparency in how funds are spent, and get rid of laws that stifle discussion of the royal family. But the protesters are also calling for the resignation of Mr Prayut and the rewriting of the Constitution.

The current charter was written by a military-appointed panel after Mr Prayut, a former army chief, took power in a 2014 coup. The protesters want to rewrite the charter that they view as instrumental in helping him retain his power after the 2019 elections.

They view that the monarchy, the nation's most powerful institution, played a role in securing the establishment's grip on power.

On Wednesday, thousands of protesters met in central Bangkok to protest against the police crackdown and the Parliament's decision.

The protest organisers plan at least two key gatherings in early December before taking a break until January, according to Mr Arnon.

One event is expected to be held on Constitution Day which is celebrated on Dec 10, and another ahead of the Constitutional Court's ruling on Mr Prayut's qualification as premier.

If the court disqualifies Mr Prayut, it would be the first sign of compromise from the establishment, Mr Arnon said.

"The changes that we want to see will take some time to achieve," he said. "Ten years from now, the generation that's protesting now will be the majority. There will be changes. They won't be able to resist change."

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