Thai PM calls for healing as thousands join march

Prayut appeals to protesters, saying he is prepared to lift Bangkok's state of emergency

Anti-government protesters trying to break through police barricades in Bangkok yesterday. The rallies - led largely by youth who are calling for the Constitution to be amended, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign and the monarchy to be r
Anti-government protesters trying to break through police barricades in Bangkok yesterday. The rallies - led largely by youth who are calling for the Constitution to be amended, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign and the monarchy to be reformed - have been taking place daily over the past week.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Embattled Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday that he was prepared to repeal the state of serious emergency declared in Bangkok to lower political temperatures, but asked protesters who have been massing daily on the streets to work through Parliament.

He made the comments in a pre-recorded address televised yesterday evening as thousands of anti-government protesters marched to Government House, where police reinforcements stood guard.

The demonstrations - led largely by youth who demand that the Constitution be amended, Mr Prayut resign and the monarchy be reformed - have been taking place daily over the past week after the government banned public gatherings of five or more people and granted security officers broad powers to search and detain individuals in the capital.

Anger over water cannon deployed by police last Friday prompted more people to take to the streets, as flash mobs were organised via social media channels that the government has reportedly tried to shut down.

The protests have largely been peaceful, involving youth gathering at short notice, making speeches condemning the government and doing a three-finger salute against dictatorship. Arrests of dozens of key leaders have simply spurred more - and even younger - supporters to pick up the slack.

"I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents," said Mr Prayut.

"The protesters have made their voices and views heard. It is now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society through their representatives in Parliament."

Mr Prayut, a former coup leader, added: "I am appealing to all sides that we must heal injuries now before they become too deep."

It remains to be seen if protesters will heed his call. Protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, 23, told Reuters: "Prayut must resign first and that is the easiest thing to do."

Meanwhile, a notice uploaded to the Royal Gazette website declared that an extraordinary parliamentary sitting would be convened from Monday.

The young protesters have been particularly vocal about the need to bring the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in line with his official status as a constitutional monarch.

The King, who is arguably the richest monarch in the world with estimated assets of over US$40 billion (S$54 billion), directly controls two army units.

But the calls have been met with hostility from royalist groups, one of which briefly scuffled with anti-government protesters at Ramkhamhaeng University yesterday afternoon. Police eventually kept the two sides apart.

There are concerns that this brewing conflict could spiral out of control and sink an economy that is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent this year because of the global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier yesterday, royalists gathered in Bangkok as well as provinces like Lampang and Narathiwat, holding portraits of King Vajiralongkorn as well as his revered late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to show support for the monarchy.

Mr Prayut said: "We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos, where all sides lose control of the situation, where emotions take over our better judgment, violence begets more violence, and, as history has shown us all many times, we can end in a situation where the entire country suffers."

However, in an apparent reference to the monarchy, he said: "A very important part of what makes every Thai a Thai is our institutions - rooted in our culture and in centuries of tradition and values. When we damage our heritage, we also lose a very important part of what makes us all Thai."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline 'Thai PM calls for healing as thousands join march'. Print Edition | Subscribe