BANGKOK — Student-led protesters in Thailand defiantly marched to the streets near the prime minister’s office on Wednesday night, repeating their demand that he step down even as he urged them to let Parliament deal with their calls for democratic reforms.
The demonstrators pushed through lines of police who, though equipped with riot gear and standing behind portable metal barriers and barbed wire, did not put up a serious fight. Police had pushed the protesters out of the same area just a week earlier.
Protesters handed government representatives what they said was a resignation form for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to sign, and also demanded freedom for their comrades arrested in connection with earlier protests.
If their demands were not met, they said, they would return in three days. They then dispersed peacefully.
The protesters’ long-term demands also include a more democratic constitution and reforms to the monarchy. The implicit criticism of the royal institution has stirred controversy because it traditionally has been treated as sacrosanct and a pillar of national identity.
In a speech televised Wednesday evening, Prayuth offered a concession to protesters, saying he would promptly lift the state of emergency he declared in Bangkok last week “if there are no violent incidents.” Withdrawing the emergency decree has been another of the protesters’ demands.
The state of emergency was declared to allow police to break up the group’s gathering outside the prime minister’s office last Thursday before dawn.
Earlier Wednesday, a group of university students went to a Bangkok court to seek to have the emergency decree revoked on the grounds that it abridged freedom of assembly. The court is expected to rule later this week.
Prayuth, in his speech broadcast at about the same time the protesters marched, pleaded with his countrymen to resolve their political differences through Parliament.
“The only way to a lasting solution for all sides that is fair for those on the streets as well as for the many millions who choose not to go on the streets is to discuss and resolve these differences through the parliamentary process,” he said, according to an official English-language text of his remarks.
The government on Tuesday approved a request to recall Parliament for a special session on Oct. 26-27 to deal with the political pressures from the protests.
Wednesday marked the eighth straight day of demonstrations by a movement that was launched in March. It went into a lull as Thailand dealt with a coronavirus outbreak, and slowly revived in July. In the past week especially, protest have spread to other provinces.
In his television appearance, Prayuth charged that some protesters had staged “brutal attacks” against police at a rally last Friday, but acknowledged that many others, “while they may be breaking the law, were still peaceful, well-meaning people who are genuine in their desire for a better society and a better nation.”
He decried the violence, but also said that the use of water cannons by the police, who used the tactic to break up Friday’s rally, was not a way “to get to a better society.” The police’s use of force was widely criticized, and garnered more support for the protesters, who generally use nonviolent tactics.
“While I can listen to and acknowledge the demands of protesters, I cannot run the country based on protester or mob demands,” Prayuth said.
He ended his remarks with a plea: “Let us respect the law and parliamentary democracy, and let our views be presented through our representatives in Parliament.”
The protesters charge that Prayuth, 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 favour a pro-military party. The protesters also say that a constitution written and passed under military rule is undemocratic.
The demonstrations have continued even though many top protest leaders have been detained and the state of emergency bans public gatherings of more than four people.
On most days, police have not confronted the protesters directly, instead trying to disrupt their gatherings with shutdowns of Bangkok’s mass transit systems and by seeking to block their online organizing activities.
Royalists, meanwhile, have stepped up their presence online and held a small rally Wednesday in Bangkok, with clashes breaking out between anti-government protesters and supporters of the monarchy.
There were bigger royalist rallies in several other provinces, the first major turnouts by crowds that are easily distinguished by the yellow shirts they wear that represent the royal colour. In many cases, these rallies were led by local officials and also served to mark devotion to the royal family on the anniversary of the birth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s late grandmother.
The authorities on Wednesday suffered a legal setback when a judge barred them from implementing banning orders on several media outlets because they failed to follow proper procedures.
Police had announced Monday that they were seeking to impose censorship on media reporting of the protests, citing what they called “distorted information” that could cause unrest and confusion in society.
They sought to block access to the online sites of four Thai news organizations and one activist group that broadcast live coverage of the protests. They had also proposed a ban on over-the-air digital television coverage of one of the broadcasters, Voice TV.
A fresh arrest was made Wednesday morning in connection with last week’s protests. Suranart Panprasert was the third person to be accused of involvement with acts of harm against the queen when her motorcade passed a small crowd of demonstrators. Depending upon exactly what he is charged with by a court, he could face a life sentence if convicted.
The incident did not involve any violence, according to witnesses and video footage, but a small group of people made the protesters’ three-finger protest gesture and shouted slogans at the car carrying Queen Suthida, shocking many Thais.
Grant Peck, The Associated Press