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Thailand's Prime Minister Signals Tougher Measures Against Anti-Government Protests

Pro-democracy protesters splash colored paint on the police headquarters sign in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday.
Sakchai Lalit
/
AP
Pro-democracy protesters splash colored paint on the police headquarters sign in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday.

Thailand's prime minister has vowed to use all available laws to quash protests calling for his ouster, after parliament rejected key demands of the demonstrators by rejecting a motion to revamp the country's constitution and overhaul the monarchy.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in a bloodless coup six years ago, issued a statement on Thursday, addressing months of increasing unrest in the capital, Bangkok, led by students demanding a more freer and more open society.

The on again, off again demonstrations have intensified in recent days, with police on Tuesday injuring dozens of protesters. Several protesters received gunshot wounds, though the circumstances of the shootings were not clear and police denied firing on them.

The demonstrators have demanded that parliament take up the changes to the country's constitution, which was rewritten on Prayuth's watch to bolster the military's role in government and secure his place in office.

On Wednesday, there were more demonstrations in front of the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police, where protesters vented anger at authorities by throwing paint on the sign in front of the building and defacing it with graffiti.

The demonstrators want Prayuth to step down and to curb the power and vast wealth of the royal family, which is considered the richest monarchy in the world, worth an estimated $40 billion — much of it tied up in lucrative land holdings.

"The situation is not improving," Prayuth said in a statement, adding that there was "a risk of escalation to more violence."

"If not addressed, it could damage the country and the beloved monarchy," he said.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, acceded to the thrown in 2016, has proven less popular than his father, who enjoyed near cult-like status in the country of 70 million people.

Although Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king wields considerable influence and Thai law, known as lese majeste, carries harsh penalties for anyone who publicly criticizes the crown.

In his short reign so far, the new king has become embroiled in several scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the palace. In a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, protesters in Bangkok last month jeered a motorcade transporting Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida.

Prayuth said earlier this year that laws against insulting the monarchy had been temporarily suspended at the king's request, but in his statement Thursday, his reference to "all laws" was considered by some as signaling that enforcement of the lese majeste might resume.

The government's refusal to consider the protesters' demands was more or less "a foregone conclusion," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who teaches political science at Bangkok's Chulalangkorn University.

"The established centers of power are very clear that they are not going to compromise," he says. "The prime minister will not resign, there will be no rewrite of the constitution and there will be no reform of the monarchy."

Thitinan says the students are digging in as well.

"What we are seeing now is escalation leading to radicalization because the protest movement is dead-set on reforming Thailand," he said.

They want to reset the rules "for a more democratic future where Thailand can move forward and also for Thailand to be more democratic with equality as a base," he said.

More violence could be ahead, as activists say they are planning a major rally next Wednesday in front of the Crown Property Bureau, a quasi-governmental agency that helps manage the royal families fortune.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.

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