BANGKOK: Thailand’s government and the country’s protest movement appeared no closer to resolving their differences on Saturday (Oct 24), as the protesters' evening deadline for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to step down came and went with no new action from either side, and no backing down.
After the 10pm deadline passed, protesters called another rally for central Bangkok on Sunday, at a major intersection in the capital's main shopping district where they have gathered before.
Prayuth told supporters Saturday evening as he left a Buddhist temple where a prayer session was held for national peace and prosperity that he would not quit.
“The government is sincere in solving the problem and committed to following the law in doing so,” he told reporters.
Prayut’s office issued a statement earlier in the day repeating his plea to resolve differences through Parliament, which will discuss the political situation in a special session starting Monday.
“Although the ongoing political situation comprises many opposing views among different groups, we should rather take this as an opportunity for Thais to consult each other on what is best for the nation,” said the statement.
Prayut this past week issued a call to allow Parliament to seek a solution to the crisis, and in a gesture to appease the protesters, revoked a state of emergency for Bangkok he had imposed a week earlier that made protest rallies illegal.
“If all parties are committed to exercise full restraint and flexibility, the circumstances would be more conducive to de-escalating the current tense political conflict and reaching an outcome that is acceptable to all stakeholders,” said Saturday’s statement, quoting government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri.
The protesters, however, said they were sticking to a deadline of 10pm Saturday for Prayuth to meet their demands that he resign, and that their arrested comrades be released from jail.
One of the protest leaders, Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa, told a crowd outside Bangkok Remand Prison that protesters should gather there Saturday and consider their next step as they wait for a response from Prayut.
Protesters had rallied outside the prison on Friday to press for their comrades’ release. They welcomed the release of Jatupat, who called for seven others still imprisoned to be freed.
However, three prominent protest leaders were denied release on bail Saturday morning.
In addition to calling for Prayut's resignation, the protesters’ core demands also include a more democratic constitution and reforms to the monarchy.
The protesters charge that Prayut, who as then-army commander led a 2014 coup, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters also say that a constitution written and passed under military rule is undemocratic.
The implicit criticism of the monarchy, which protesters believe wields too much power, has irked conservative Thais because it traditionally has been treated as sacrosanct and a pillar of national identity.
There is concern that the situation may become more volatile, because in the past week there has been a mobilisation of forces who claim to be defenders of the monarchy.
Royalists held rallies in several cities, in many cases led by local civil servants. On Wednesday, a small counter-protest held in Bangkok turned violent when a few attendees attacked anti-government students.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn made a rare appearance Friday night as he and Queen Suthida and other members of the royal family walked through a crowd of ardent royalists who had gathered on a street to cheer him as he passed by.
The king, in an unusually informal manner, was seen on a widely circulated video giving thanks to an onlooker who earlier in the week had held up a sign supporting the monarchy in the midst of anti-government supporters. The video showed the queen pointing out the man to the king.
Vajiralongkorn also spoke briefly with Suwit Thongprasert, a royalist activist who had been part of a group whose violent protests in 2014 put pressure on an elected government that helped trigger the coup led by Prayuth. Suwit was a Buddhist monk known as Buddha Issara when he was a leader of the right-wing People’s Democratic Reform Committee during the 2014 protests.