Protesters vow to keep pushing for reform, even if Thai PM quits

Discontent with Prayut ranks high, but protesters also aim to upend long-ruling royalist elite

Royalists wearing yellow shirts at an event to support the monarchy in Bangkok on Tuesday. One of them held up a picture of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. PHOTO: REUTERS Pro-democracy demonstrators showing the three-finger anti-government salute d
Royalists wearing yellow shirts at an event to support the monarchy in Bangkok on Tuesday. One of them held up a picture of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. PHOTO: REUTERS
Royalists wearing yellow shirts at an event to support the monarchy in Bangkok on Tuesday. One of them held up a picture of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. PHOTO: REUTERS Pro-democracy demonstrators showing the three-finger anti-government salute d
Pro-democracy demonstrators showing the three-finger anti-government salute during a protest outside the German Embassy in Bangkok on Monday. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • With protests in Thailand intensifying against the monarchy, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's hold on power is growing more tenuous by the day.

A poll published on Sunday by Bangkok's Suan Dusit University showed that more than 62 per cent of participants said discontent with Mr Prayut was the key reason for the recent demonstrations.

The former army chief has run Thailand for more than six years, taking power in a 2014 coup and returning as premier after elections last year under a Constitution produced by his military regime.

Mr Prayut has so far refused to resign in the face of repeated deadlines set by protesters to step down.

During a special Parliament session this week, he said the government would restart next month a stalled process for amending the Constitution and accused many lawmakers of having "short memories".

"If I didn't take power in 2014, what would happen?" Mr Prayut told Parliament on Tuesday.

"Would there be riots in Thailand? Did you forget all the things that happened before I came in? Did you forget all the chaos, all the corruption?"

But even if Mr Prayut quits, protesters say they are not going anywhere until the political system engineered by the royalist elite is also gone.

That means they will continue pushing their other demands: a more democratic Constitution and more accountability for King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Key protest leader Jatupat Boonpattararaksa said: "The protest movement won't end until we've reached all of our three demands.

"Even if Prayut quits, someone like Prayut will replace him and we'll go back to the same problems again. All the changes in the government, the charter and the monarchy need to happen at the same time."

The growing resolve of key protesters shows there is no easy short-term solution to end the movement.

The protesters have adopted Hong Kong-style tactics to keep the police off balance, prompting Mr Prayut to lift a state of emergency in Bangkok last week after the authorities struggled to enforce it.

Much like the Hong Kong protests, which made demands for democracy that threatened an entrenched power, the Thai demonstrators are looking to upend the royalist elite that has run the country for much of its history.

While China managed to stem large-scale protests by implementing a repressive national security law, Thailand's leaders potentially face a greater risk with a more aggressive response.

Any action that leads to bloodshed - which has occurred throughout Thailand's history, most recently in 2010 - could further hurt an economy dependent on trade and tourism that is already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Thailand's benchmark SET Index has already fallen almost 24 per cent this year, the biggest drop in Asia.

Associate Professor Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, head of the Department of Government at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, feels Mr Prayut would consider resigning only if the government loses legitimacy as a result of using force on protesters or an economic crisis.

"The government, for now, still has the upper hand," she said.

Even if Mr Prayut goes, the system that allowed him to take power without standing in the election is still in place. The Constitution now gives the 250-member Senate, which is appointed by the military, a vote for the prime minister along with the 500-member Lower House - stacking the odds in favour of establishment candidates.

Possible replacements for Mr Prayut include Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, who were both nominated for the top post during the last election.

But if they do not muster enough support, the charter allows for the possibility of an "outsider" candidate to contest, with analysts saying that it could include someone like Mr Apirat Kongsompong, a former army chief who is now working for the palace.

Associate professor of politics Punchada Sirivunnabood from Mahidol University near Bangkok said: "The system was designed to keep the establishment in power, so it's unlikely that they'll do anything to change that structure.

"They may agree to either some changes to the Constitution or the government's resignation, but not both."

The final demand on changes to the monarchy is the most ambitious. Protesters have broken long-held taboos about publicly criticising the royal family, with demands for the monarch to no longer endorse coups, to provide transparency in how funds are spent, and get rid of laws that stifle discussion on the royal family.

Protesters have begun making their case on the world stage: On Monday, they submitted a letter to the German Embassy in Bangkok, asking the government in Berlin to investigate the King, who spends much of his time in the European country, over tax and visa violations there.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the authorities were examining the issues and warned there would be "immediate consequences" if they found anything illegal.

The Thai palace has not commented on the protesters' demands or the remarks from the German authorities. Calls to the Bureau of the Royal Household seeking comments went unanswered.

Associate Professor Christopher Ankersen, from the School of Professional Studies' Centre for Global Affairs at New York University, said: "The student demand for a reform to the monarchy is the least likely to be addressed.

"It's not evident that this King would be interested in agreeing to them. It's difficult to imagine him being convinced to 'retire' from the scene, relinquish day-to-day control over the kingdom or live out the rest of his days as a true constitutional monarch."

Still, protest organisers like Mr Jatupat believe they have momentum on their side, despite the long odds.

He said: "Each time we hold a demonstration, there are more and more people joining. People are optimistic that there will be changes."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2020, with the headline 'Protesters vow to keep pushing for reform, even if Thai PM quits'. Print Edition | Subscribe