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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's youth protest draws thousands after PM refuses to quit

Demonstrators return to Bangkok's commercial heart in smaller numbers

Thousands of protesters returned to Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection on Sunday for the first major protest in Thailand since a state of severe emergency was lifted on Thursday. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

BANGKOK -- Pro-democracy groups are taking turns reviving daily rallies and protest momentum after a three-day relative lull during which Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ignored a student demand that he resign by 10 p.m. on Saturday.

The first rally on Sunday was due to run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and revisited the Ratchaprasong intersection, a business and retail area in central Bangkok. A protest there on Oct. 15 attracted over 10,000 mostly young people. Today's rally had attracted thousands by 7 p.m.

"Prayuth is the problem. [He is] the first obstacle that we need to remove," said activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa when he announced the rally this morning.

Jatupat, who goes by the nickname Pai Dao Din, called for the resumption of daily protests after Prayuth let the resignation deadline pass. He became a pro-democracy activist in 2015, and has been arrested and charged a number of times, including for lese-majeste -- a draconian law that outlaws perceived damage or insult to the monarchy. Jatupat was among 19 protesters arrested on Oct. 13 near Democracy Monument, and was granted bail on Friday.

The rally held at Ratchaprasong on Oct. 15 defied a state of severe emergency declared early that morning by the government that banned gatherings of more than four people. On that occasion, police blocked an overhead walkway from a nearby skytrain station, but the measure failed to curb attendance.

The following night, Oct. 16, riot police were deployed and water cannons, tear gas and skin irritants used against a peaceful crowd that was close to dispersing from the nearby Pathumwan intersection because of heavy rain. The excessive police action was widely criticized at home and abroad.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, the firebrand protest leader who goes by the nickname Pai Dao Din, called Sunday's rally after being released on bail from police custody on Friday. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

Thailand has been governed under a state of emergency since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this has been renewed on a monthly basis. The supplementary severe emergency decree was lifted after a week on Oct. 22.

On Saturday, Prayuth said he would not quit the premiership when he emerged from Wat Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhakaram, a Buddhist temple. The prime minister had been participating in prayers for recovery from turmoil, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the national political impasse. "I urge everyone to reconcile and help solve problems together," he said.

There will be a special joint session of parliament on Monday and Tuesday to review the political unrest. Although such sessions are not allowed to vote through any resolutions, recommendations can be made.

Two other pro-democracy groups, Free Youth and the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, announced a two-kilometer march in central Bangkok on Monday from Samyan intersection to the German embassy.

"See you at the German embassy at 17:00 on Monday," one of the protest groups tweeted late on Saturday. The rally will add an international twist to the standoff.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Germany, and reform of the monarchy has been one of the key demands at recent protests.

Thousands of protesters returned to Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection, the commercial heart of the kingdom's capital on Sunday. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

The lifting of the emergency decree has also enabled royalists to stage counter-rallies. The king and other members of the royal family have been under unusually open scrutiny in recent months, but the palace has remained tight-lipped.

On Friday, the king entered the frame directly by mingling with ordinary royalists following a ceremony to commemorate his great grandfather, King Chulalongkorn. The king stepped out of his motorcade to meet supporters.

"Very brave, very brave, very good, thank you," the king told a man who had challenged anti-government protesters on Wednesday by raising a picture of the king and Queen Suthida during an anti-government protest outside a Central department store in Bangkok's Pinklao district. A clip of the incident went viral.

The protesters frequently shout, "Prayuth, get out." Today they added a new chant to their repertoire: "Very brave, very brave, good job, good job -- now get out."

Political analysts have raised concerns that royalists might use the king's unexpected -- and very unusual -- interaction with the public as an excuse to escalate activities against pro-democracy protesters. So far, there have only been minor skirmishes between the two sides and no serious clashes.

Open discussion of the monarchy is meanwhile spreading. The Facebook group Royalist Marketplace, an online forum used mainly by younger people, had over two million members by Sunday afternoon despite government efforts to get it shut down.

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