No end in sight as both sides refuse to shift their stance
Thai politics has arrived at a dead end as neither side shows any sign of stepping away from the tug-of-war they have been playing for nearly five months.
The anti-establishment movement has been rallying since July, demanding that Prayut and his government step down, the junta-endorsed Constitution be rewritten and the monarchy reformed.
They are escalating their protests to a point of no return and “shattering the ceiling” by challenging the monarchy, observers say.
No sign of reconciliation
Analysts have proposed non-violent routes out of the conflict, such as peace talks, but each side has refused because the stakes are too high for both. Moves to set up a reconciliation committee are also likely to fail, as protesters have boycotted the panel.
Many observers now warn of possible clashes and violence if the student-led protesters refuse to lower their demands, especially their call for monarchy reforms. There is also concern that if things get out of control, the government will impose martial law or even be ousted by the Army.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, says the escalation of protests brings an increasing likelihood of violent clashes and bloodshed.
The potential for serious violence was seen soon after protesters began dispersing on Wednesday (November 25), when two men were shot and critically wounded, though the shooting’s connection to the rally remains unclear. The rally for monarchy reform was being held outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) in Bangkok’s Chatuchak district. His Majesty the King is the major shareholder in the bank.
A week earlier, more than 50 demonstrators sustained injuries, including six with gunshot wounds, during a rally outside Parliament on November 17, when police directed water cannon and tear gas at protesters and skirmishes broke out between royalists and pro-democracy protesters – the first major clash between the two rival sides.
Yuthaporn fears that clashes and the PM’s vow to enforce “all pertaining laws” may lead to a “severe” state of emergency, followed by martial law and finally a military coup. He said a coup would be a last resort if clashes between royalists and anti-establishment protesters cause massive injuries and even deaths.
The pundit believes a military takeover is a real possibility, given Thailand does not have an established democracy and the Army’s structure leaves the door open for a putsch. However, it would only make things worse, he added.
“Staging a coup may be the last resort [to solve the stalemate], but it won’t end the political crisis. Instead it will intensify the situation, as protesters have made it clear they won’t accept a coup or national unity government,” Yuthaporn said.
Fully aware that a military seizure becomes more likely as the conflict escalates, pro-democracy protesters occupied the busy Lat Phrao intersection on Friday to stage an anti-coup drill.
Core protest leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul urged protesters to resist any military intervention, noting that rumours of a coup were now emerging daily.
“If a coup is staged, we want to see more people out on the streets to thwart it,” she said.
Last week, PM Prayut dismissed the coup rumours, adding he would not impose martial law in Bangkok as existing laws were adequate to cope with the situation.
‘Little will change’
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist from Rangsit University, expects the crisis to turn into a “cold war”, with both sides quietly gathering support for their opposing ideologies.
This may enable Prayut to stay until the end of his term in early 2023, with a new Constitution delayed until then.
Two charter amendment drafts paving the way for a Constitution rewrite are currently being vetted by a parliamentary panel. Though no official timeline has been set, Thailand is expected to have a new Constitution by 2022 at the soonest if there are no legal hurdles.
“Prayut is still able to control all levers [of power]. He has the military’s support and, barring ‘political accidents’, there is no suitable candidate to replace him,” the political analyst said.
Friday’s “coup-prevention drill” came two days after thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered outside SCB headquarters in one of their most direct challenges to the monarch so far. This was the first rally to focus almost exclusively on transparency and accountability of royal assets – one of the 10 points in the manifesto for monarchy reform issued by the movement in August.
SCB is Thailand’s oldest bank and the largest lender by assets. According to the SCB website, HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its biggest shareholder, holding a 23.53 per cent stake in the bank after assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau were transferred to his personal control.
The 10-point manifesto calls for the annulment of the 2018 Royal Assets Structuring Act passed by the post-coup regime. The act combines the King’s personal assets and the crown’s wealth managed by the Crown Property Bureau, which previously came under the Finance Ministry.
At the rally, protest leader and rights lawyer Arnon Nampa said signatures would be collected to back a parliamentary draft bill that places Crown Property Bureau assets under the management of an elected government.
The pro-democracy movement’s shift of focus towards the King has led to protest leaders being charged with lese majeste, under the draconian Article 112 of the penal code.
The law had not been used for two years but was revived hours before protesters gathered outside SCB’s HQ calling for a “return of assets that should belong to citizens”.
At least 12 protest leaders were summoned to hear charges of royal defamation, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. This is the first time that Article 112, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail, has been applied to the mass protest movement that launched in July.
In June, Prayut said the King had instructed the government not to use Article 112. That instruction is now apparently void.
“I am not scared,” protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak said on Tuesday night after being summoned by police. “I’m more worried that they are still using this [lese majeste law] in politics like this. The country will deteriorate further.”
Critics claim Article 112 has long been used to silence government critics.
Its restoration marks a point of no return for the protest movement, said Parit.
“Let [them] come to arrest us,” he said at Wednesday’s rally.
“The protests will continue even without us. Our movement has now moved to a different level. From now on, there will be no softness or retreat from us.”