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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's embattled prime minister has no plan to quit, for now

Prayuth Chan-ocha believes the electoral arithmetic is on his side

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha doesn't "know how to handle the situation," a Thai military expert said, "so [he] resorted to the usual harsh tactics."   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Beleaguered Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is dipping into his political capital to outmaneuver his increasingly emboldened adversaries, the youth-led anti-government protesters who have mounted daily rallies in Bangkok and smaller cities across the country, urging him to resign.

It is one of the political options the gruff former junta leader is weighing to stay on as the head of a coalition government, headed by Palang Pracharat, a party formed as a political vehicle for the military ahead of the 2019 general elections. Prayuth has been at the helm since May 2014, when he staged a coup as the then commander of the Thai army, deposing an elected administration.

A source within Prayuth's inner circle told Nikkei Asia that the electoral arithmetic has fortified the prime minister's resolve. "He has been given a mandate to govern by the 8.4 million voters who endorsed Palang Pracharat in last year's elections," the source said. "This works in his favor; he has no reason to step down. He can count on the Palang Pracharat voters to continue."

Nearly 75% of Thailand's 51.2 million registered voters cast ballots in the 2019 elections. The Pheu Thai party, which had led the elected government Prayuth overthrew in the 2014 putsch, won 7.8 million votes. And the Future Forward Party, formed before the poll to tap young adults, secured 6.5 million votes.

At the same time, the Prayuth administration is exploring routes for "back-channel talks" with the student leaders as a way to bring down the rising political temperature. "We are looking for correct counterparts for such talks," the source added, admitting the difficulty in finding an interlocutor since the latest anti-government protests are organic and appear leaderless.

Such options on the table at Government House, the official name for the prime minister's office in the Thai capital, come as the nation's polarization -- a generational divide -- becomes stark. On Wednesday, Prayuth delivered a nationally televised address that appealed for calm and compromise. It was a prelude to the government lifting the "severe" emergency decree on Thursday. Yet, on the same day, the student protesters raised the ante, drafting a mock resignation letter for Prayuth to sign. It was handed to a Government House official.

The 2019 elections laid bare the earliest signs of this generational divide in a country already polarized along social and class lines. Prayuth's Palang Pracharat was heavily backed by senior citizens, those 61 years and older, who accounted for 10 million of registered voters. The new Future Forward Party, since dissolved following a controversial court ruling, drummed up support from voters 18 to 25 years old, who accounted for 7.3 million of all voters.

The latest round of daily protests, now into its second week, has unnerved the ruling, ultraroyalist establishment as it has breached a centuries-old cultural taboo -- openly targeting the monarchy as part of a banner for sweeping democratic reforms. But the heavy-handed response by the pro-military government -- police have detained over 70 people, 22 on criminal charges -- has further inflamed the passions of the university and high school students venting their rage at Prayuth, according to analysts.

Chuan Leekpai, who led Thailand out of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, is now seen as a potential replacement should Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign.   © Getty Images

"They don't know how to handle the situation, so they resorted to the usual harsh tactics," said Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai political scientist and author of an upcoming book "Infiltrating the Society: The Thai Military's Internal Security Affairs." "The generational divide is undeniable. The most divisive issue, however, is not about political parties, but the youth's perception of the monarchy -- their critical comments and a call for sweeping reforms of the institution."

Thai security sources admit that the visible features of the current protests have proved more challenging than previous episodes of rage taken into the streets. Before the coup in 2014, anti-government demonstrations that had been polarizing the country for a decade or so were staged either by the so-called yellow shirts, many of them royalists, or their nemesis, the red shirts, drawn largely from the underclass.

"In the field," a well-placed security insider said, "things are not that easy to control now. The protesters move here and there, and they don't wear particular shirts that make them easy to be identified, as protesters in the past."

A diplomatic wrinkle might also limit Prayuth's options to confront the young protesters. It involves the politically sensitive activities of the monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time in Germany. Early this month, the German government made a rare public statement against the Thai king conducting affairs of the Thai state while in Germany. "We would always clearly counteract efforts by guests in our country to conduct affairs of state from our country," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in parliament, responding to a query from an opposition Green party lawmaker about the Thai monarch.

The 68-year-old king has been in Thailand since mid-October and is expected to stay till the end of the month to fulfill religious and official duties. It is one of the longest periods he has spent in the country since succeeding his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016.

Within Bangkok's diplomatic circles, there is a shared sentiment that any harsh action taken by the Prayuth government in defense of the king -- "such as a breach of human rights," according to one diplomat -- will not be viewed favorably in Germany. "The German statement has implications because it has been made public," a Western diplomat said. "It will be an ongoing issue if the king continues to stay in Germany."

A hint of how Thailand will navigate this sensitive matter came during a briefing this week the foreign ministry had with Bangkok-based envoys. When questioned by a diplomat on how the country will uphold its human rights obligations, an official responded that Thailand would meet its commitments "with some restrictions."

Seasoned observers contend that the political tensions, which appear headed toward a deadlock, will compel parliament to step in as arbiter. The legislature is due to meet next week for a special session. "The person to watch is Chuan," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank, referring to Chuan Leekpai, a savvy political veteran and former prime minister now serving as the speaker of the 500-member lower house. "He will have a big say in setting the political agenda and even filling the void if Prayuth quits."

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