Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Wednesday that he was preparing to lift a state of emergency imposed to stop months of anti-government protests as thousands of demonstrators rallied for an eighth straight day in the country’s capital, Bangkok.
In a televised address to the nation, Prayuth urged protesters to let the parliament – where his supporters have a majority – resolve disputes and said he would lift the emergency measures announced last week if there was no violence.
“I will make the first move to de-escalate this situation,” he said. “I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents.
“We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos,” he added.
Protesters, who have held near daily rallies since late July, are demanding Prayuth’s resignation, a more democratic constitution and reforms to the monarchy – a revered institution traditionally treated as sacrosanct in Thailand.
The protests have continued daily since late July and drew tens of thousands of people earlier this week after the government’s decision to impose emergency measures.
The demonstrations have become the biggest challenge to Thailand’s establishment in years, prompting the most open opposition to the monarchy in decades, despite lese majeste laws setting jail terms of up to 15 years for insulting royalty. The government’s decision last Thursday to impose emergency measures – which ban political gatherings of more than five people and the publication of information deemed to threaten security – drew tens of thousands of people earlier this week in the biggest demonstrations in months of protests.
Even the forcible dispersion of a rally by riot police with water cannon in Bangkok last Friday failed to faze protesters, who appeared in equal or greater numbers on subsequent days.
As Prayuth spoke on Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters marched towards his office at Government House to demand his resignation as well as the lifting of the emergency measures and release of dozens of activists arrested in a crackdown.
“It’s not enough. He must resign,” Too, 54, one of the marchers, told Reuters News Agency.
Protesters say Prayuth engineered an election last year to keep hold of the power he seized in a 2014 coup. He says the election was fair.
University student and activist Som, 20, told AFP he was sceptical that Prayuth would follow through on his words.
“I don’t believe he will lift the emergency decree as he has set conditions,” he said, adding the protesters must “keep up their demands”.
Wednesday’s anti-government demonstration came as scores of yellow-clad Thai royalists held a counter rally at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok to show support for King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s monarchy. The two sides later clashed, with both groups shouting at each other and some throwing water bottles and other objects.
Thousands or royalists also rallied in support of the monarchy in the southern province of Narathiwat.
In his speech, Prayuth said disputes should be resolved in parliament. His supporters are in the majority, the entire upper house having been appointed by his former military government.
“The protesters have made their voices and views heard,” Prayuth said. “It is now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society.”
Separately on Wednesday, six university students went to a civil court in Bangkok and filed a lawsuit against Prayuth, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and national police chief Suwat Chaengyodsuk. They want the court to temporarily revoke the emergency decree until a full legal ruling can be issued on its legality.
The students, who read their petition to the media in Thai, English and German, said the decree restricted the legal right of assembly and “excessively, unfairly and shamelessly violated the rights and freedoms of people” with no respect to the constitution.
The court did not act on their petition but may rule on Thursday on a similar appeal that was filed on Tuesday by the opposition Pheu Thai party.
Also on Wednesday, two protest leaders approached a Bangkok criminal court and sought their release on bail. After a hearing, however, the court denied them bail, saying they could pose a threat to public order.
The two – Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul – were initially taken into custody during an attempted overnight rally outside the prime minister’s office on the night of October 14. They were released on Tuesday but immediately rearrested on other charges.
As he was being driven into the court compound in a prison van, Parit opened a window, flashed a three-fingered salute – the protesters’ symbol of defiance – and shouted, “The court must side with the people!”
Another activist was arrested on Wednesday morning in connection with last week’s protests. Suranart Panprasert is 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.
According to witnesses and video footage, no violence occurred as the motorcade passed, but a small group of people made the three-finger protest gesture and shouted slogans at the car carrying Queen Suthida, the wife of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Thailand’s parliament is reconvening for a special session next week to deal with the political pressures of the protests. The government has also sought to censor reporting of the demonstrations, citing “distorted information” that could cause unrest and confusion, but the targeted outlets were continuing to broadcast on Wednesday.