BANGKOK -- As thousands of young protesters marched on the Government House, a pre-recorded address by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was broadcast Wednesday night, calling for a parliamentary solution to the political impasse and national reconciliation after eight straight days of protests across Thailand.
The demonstrators coming 3km from Victory Monument had already reached a roundabout near Government House by the time the address was aired, diminishing its chances of defusing the immediate situation.
The demonstrators' main demands are for the resignation of Prayuth and his government, revision of the present military drafted constitution, and reform of the monarchy. Criticism of the monarchy is unprecedented; it is an institution considered untouchable until recent months.
"I will make the first move to de-escalate this situation," Prayuth 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."
Lifting the state of emergency and releasing imprisoned student leaders were among the protesters' immediate demands. While 19 leaders were released on Monday, two students and a human rights lawyer who had been most outspoken in their criticisms of the monarchy were immediately re-arrested on fresh charges. The government had already backed down today on orders to shut down five online news channels, including Voice TV.
Thailand's premier for the last six years is an often blunt spoken and irascible former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014. With a reputation for flip-flopping on election dates and constitution promises, Prayuth was unusually conciliatory in the address: "The protesters have made their voices and views heard," he said. "It is now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society through their representatives in parliament."
"My duty as a national leader is to look after the needs of everyone in this country, and to try and balance sometimes very different and very extreme views so that we can all live together in this one land that belongs to us all and which we all love," he said.
Prayuth appeared to concede that tensions have risen dangerously high right across the country. "We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos, where all sides lose control of the situation, where emotions take over our better judgement, violence begets more violence, and, as history has shown us all many times, we can end in a situation where the entire country suffers," he said.
Earlier in the day, thousands of royalist Yellow Shirts took to the streets of Sungai Kolok district, a border crossing to Malaysia in the southernmost province of Narathiwat.
The march was the largest show of opposition so far to the daily youth-led protests staged in Bangkok and the provinces.
Royalists began gathering in some places on Oct. 14, but have not achieved the size and frequency of the pro-democracy turnouts.
Organizers announced at 3 p.m. a major pro-democacy rally at Victory Monument in central Bangkok from 4 p.m. and another at Ramkamhaeng University in the northeastern part of city.
They later announced the march along a barricaded route from Victory Monument to Government House, from where Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was due to address the nation at 7 p.m.
"Until now, the monarch has never caused any harm to the Thai people," Dr Rienthong Nanna, a prominent royalist and director of Mongkulwattana Hospital, recently posted on Facebook. "Why do they ask for the monarchy reform?"
After a slow start, Yellow Shirts have become more active opposing pro-democracy groups, prompting concerns about clashes, social disorder and further damage to the economy.
There was also a smaller gathering in Chonburi province on Tuesday near the resort city of Pattaya, over 100km from the capital. In the northern city of Lampang, a crowd of 500 formed calling for respect of the monarchy.
"It's okay if both sides want to stage protests to express their political views peacefully," an analyst at KGI Securities told Nikkei Asia. "It will not be okay and have a very big impact on the economy if there is a clash and violence."
Police have been watching protests in Bangkok closely to avert possible confrontations, but rally sites are revealed on social media at very short notice, sometimes bringing them close to pockets of royalist supporters.
Additional reporting by Masayuki Yuda.