11 July 2024

Fear is growing that Thailand’s ongoing political conflict will intensify, with no visible way out, after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared that “all existing laws” would be wielded against anti-establishment protesters.

Critics voiced concern that the draconian lese majeste law, which has not been used for some time, may be deployed to shackle the youth-led movement.

Prayut’s statement, which was released on Thursday, said the current situation was not heading in a positive direction, with conflicts now escalating into violence.

If not dealt with, it could damage the country and the “beloved institution”, as well as the peace and safety of people and their property, he added.

“The government and security agencies find it necessary to enforce all existing laws and all articles to take action against protesters who violate the law or who trespass on other people’s rights, in accordance with international standards of justice,” the statement said.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said Prayut’s announcement would make it more difficult to find a way out of the conflict, as protesters were bound to react strongly.

Although Prayut did not specifically refer to Article 112 – the lese majeste law which penalises criticism of the monarchy with jail terms of up to 15 years – Yuthaporn believes it may well be used to prosecute protesters.

Prayut had said in June that the King, out of clemency, gave instructions not to use Article 112 against people.

However, royalists on Thursday stepped up their demand that police invoke it against protesters after an offensive remark was spray-painted on the portrait of a Royal outside police headquarters during a protest on Wednesday night.

Following the premier’s statement, police announced they were ready to use the lese majeste law against any demonstrator who offends or insults the monarchy.

However, Metha Matkhao, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, commented that using Article 112 against pro-democracy protesters would contradict the King’s wishes.

“Enforcing it would be a direct violation of the King’s remark and cause damage to the monarchy,” Metha said in a Facebook post, adding that the lese majeste law had long been used as a weapon to destroy political opponents.

He said the government would only add fuel to the fire by issuing such a threat, because it will further polarise Thai society.

“It [the PM’s statement] is not a step towards restoring reconciliation efforts, but a counter-step using legal mechanisms,” the activist said.

Prayut’s statement came after lawmakers on Wednesday passed two draft amendment bills in the first reading that would pave the way for a new Constitution. However, they rejected the so-called “people’s draft” sponsored by rights group Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw) and supported by more than 100,000 people.

The rejection angered protesters, who supported the draft because it not only paves the way for a new Constitution, but would also reform the monarchy – one of their three core demands. Their other demands are for the removal of Prayut as PM and a more democratic Constitution.

The protesters have announced their next rally will be held on Wednesday (November 25) outside the Crown Property Bureau. Observers suggest Prayut’s statement was issued as a warning against this rally.

Early this month, young anti-establishment protesters took their boldest move so far by symbolically mailing letters to the King, calling for reform of the revered institution.

Free Youth, one of the movement’s allies, suggested Prayut’s statement was a declaration of “lawfare” on the peaceful protesters, in which the government would wield all legal “weapons” including Article 112.

“Is this a declaration of ‘war’ against the people? This is the last straw … Please be prepared to deal with a failed state,” the group posted on Twitter.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk