11 July 2024

Picture a man surfing in a turbulent sea. That’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the moment. If he falls off and drowns, it will be no surprise. If he survives, opinions will be divided. Some will regard him as a hero who has taken risks and overcome them, while others will dread his unrivalled insanity.

The arrests of protest leaders and the state of emergency add to the storms. What comes next remains highly unpredictable. He may have nipped it in the bud, or he may have thrown gasoline onto a raging fire. Both supporters and opponents are unsure which scenario it is, and the two camps are equally fearful and hopeful.

A few people may have sympathized with the embattled prime minister. What else could he have done? Throwing paint in symbolic disrespect for a royal passage or showing open defiance against a royal motorcade cry out for a government action. Doing nothing and he could have alienated a power base, while doing what he has done can be deemed dictatorial.


Prayut chose not to be named a lame duck, so the risks are taken. He is betting on the benefits of managing to cancel out an encamped, weeks-long protest at Government House, a situation that had a lot to do with the downfall of Thaksin Shinawatra. But in clearing out Government House parameters, much has got to give. Now-popular protest leaders have to be arrested, the state of emergency has to be announced, and the foreign media and western governments, relatively silent previously, have begun to frown at the prime minister. Last but not least, the possibility of the Rajprasong intersection becoming a bastion of defiance remains strong.

In a way, Prayut has been lucky. A few weeks ago, it appeared to be all about him. The protesters, whether they were aiming high or not, were shooting low. Now, their ambitions and actions give a cornered Prayut a much-needed breathing space, apparently.

The emergence of yellow shirts at sensitive spots on Wednesday created and spread jitters. But it also offered Prayut a stormy yet possible escape channel to ride his way out. From “zero” a few weeks ago, he is now anything but.

If Prayut is a crazy surfer, his opponents are also skating on thin ice. Holding a protest on the same week as the national remembrance of a revered late monarch is a big gamble in itself. Renaming their movement a few days earlier reconfirmed a controversial ambition, laid bare late last month with the symbolic re-installment of a rebellious plaque.


In other words, if Prayut had needed a pretext, the protesters may have unknowingly given him one. Wednesday’s situation was probably ten times more serious than when scattered campus protests targetted the prime minister, but that not-so-distant past featured Prayut surfing on a relatively calm sea with many wishing him to fail. The waves are big, relentless and treacherous now, but the “mad surfer” is getting some more fans.

The gloves are nearly off on both sides. If the currently fluid situation can say anything with utmost certainty, it’s that what divided King Prajadhipok and Khana Ratsadon in 1932 is still very divisive today. Thailand’s political peace, which has been existing on a delicate balance and disrupted time and again when either side held extreme advantages, is trembling yet again.


By Tulsathit Taptim