Thai PM Prayut prepared to repeal emergency to lower tensions

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Thailand's prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, says he's going to lift the state of emergency imposed last week, to stop mass protests in Bangkok. As he spoke, protesters marched to Government House, seeking his resignation.
Police try to separate pro-democracy protesters and royalists during a clash in Bangkok, on Oct 21, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said he was preparing to lift emergency measures in Bangkok. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Embattled Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Wednesday (Oct 21) 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 that was televised on Wednesday evening as thousands of anti-government protesters marched to the Government House, where police reinforcements stood guard.

The demonstrations, led largely by youth who are demanding the Constitution be amended, Mr Prayut resign, and the monarchy be reformed, have been taking place daily over 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 cannons 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.

Protests have largely been peaceful, involving youth gathering at short notice, making speeches condemning the government, 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," Mr Prayut, a former coup leader, said.

"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. 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.

"Prayut must resign first and that is the easiest thing to do," protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, 23, told Reuters.

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 at 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 ecnonomy that is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent this year because of the global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier on Wednesday, 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 judgement, 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 are 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."

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