Pro-democracy protesters wear T-shirts featuring a portrait of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled Thai activist based in Japan, during a rally in Bangkok on Aug. 27. (Photo: AFP)
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, has appeared to threaten violence against young Thais who have been staging daily pro-democracy protests for nearly two months.
“If we want to overcome each other politically, the nation will collapse,” Prayut said at a press conference on Aug. 26. “If that happens, just wait, everybody will be on fiery land, engulfed in flames.”
His statement came just as authorities have been escalating a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Several leaders of the student-led rallies have been arrested and charged with various crimes, including sedition, in recent days.
Even rappers and university students were detained over statements calling for sweeping political reforms in Thailand, which they say remains a dictatorship under the guise of a parliamentary democracy.
Prayut has been in charge of Thailand since he seized power in a coup in May 2014 at the head of a junta that ousted an elected government. He retained power last year after countrywide elections that observers called only partially free.
Earlier this year the country’s highest court disbanded a prominent opposition party on a legal technicality and banned several of its leaders, including its popular founder, from politics for 10 years.
In recent weeks tens of thousands of mostly young Thais have been stepping up protests against Prayut’s administration in the hope that they can somehow force him to resign.
The protesters accuse the military-led government of violating basic rights and mismanaging the country’s affairs, including its economy, which is expected to shrink by 10 percent this year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and inadequate government responses.
“There’s a problem that stands in the way of ... the Thai nation achieving a balance for us to move forward. His name is Prayut Chan-o-cha,” Voranai Vanijaka, a prominent political and social commentator, argued in an op-ed published on Aug. 27.
“For the past six years or so, the Thai people have become well familiar with the general’s mindset,” Voranai wrote. “His boastfulness, vulgarity and delusion of self-grandeur are a part of everyday Thai life, like the polluted air that we live with.”
Other observers noted that Prayut’s veiled threat against student protesters carried weight in a country where the military has a long history of gunning down pro-democracy demonstrations.
In 2010, nearly 100 pro-democracy demonstrators were shot dead by the Thai military, including by army snipers, during a bloody crackdown in Bangkok.
To this day no army officer has faced any legal repercussions for the killing of unarmed protesters in broad daylight, although several people were killed by snipers even inside a Buddhist temple where they had sought refuge from the violence.
On social media thousands of young Thais have responded to the prime minister’s threat by calling for him to resign and mocking his government.
However, despite an upsurge of animosity across Thailand towards Prayut and his administration, the former army chief continues to enjoy the support of the country’s military and powerful oligarchy.
“Getting rid of this government will be a pretty tall order,” a Bangkok-based political analyst told UCA News.
“The army have the guns and they will be willing to use them if necessary. At the same time, electoral politics have broken down in Thailand because the military have rewritten the rules in their favor.”