- - Thursday, October 22, 2020

BANGKOK — Thailand’s U.S.-backed authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha appeared to be riding high a year ago.

The former army chief, who seized power six years ago in a military coup, had just won a fresh term in office under a constitution he wrote himself. He had forged a personal relationship with President Trump, had a strong working majority in the national legislature and had no obvious rivals to challenge his power.

But Mr. Prayuth these days seems bewildered and vulnerable, backpedaling furiously but unable to stop two months of street protests against the government that have even brought into question the status of the previously untouchable monarchy.

Thailand’s status as one of the longest and most reliable U.S. allies in a troubled but dynamic region looks secure, but speculation that Mr. Prayuth may not survive in office portends a period of deep instability and uncertainty to Bangkok.

Many Thais are speculating about whether the prime minister can stay at the top, who might replace him and whether bullets will be used against tens of thousands of peaceful, idealistic youths demanding revolutionary changes.

As street protests in Bangkok continued Thursday for the ninth straight day, the once-forceful Mr. Prayuth sounded almost plaintive in asking demonstrators to work through the system to address their grievances. Bowing to a key demand of the student-led protests, he agreed to lift a state of emergency that allowed the government to curb critical speech and break up all but the smallest of public gatherings.

“I will make the first move to de-escalate this situation,” he said in a national address Wednesday night. “I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents.”

But even as Mr. Prayuth was speaking, crowds reportedly marched near Government House and insisted that he step down and that those arrested in previous protests be released immediately.

Many Thais predict the protesters will not be able to curtail the vast influence and wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, one of the world’s richest monarchs and the embodied symbol of Thai identity — although even that is not a sure bet these days.

“Now it is understood that the country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” the constitutional king said in a speech Friday.

University students and schoolchildren nationwide have been blocking afternoon traffic in scattered cities, voicing often vulgar speeches against Mr. Prayuth and the monarchy, and disappearing at 8 p.m. Much of what protesters shout at rallies, spray-paint as graffiti on Bangkok’s grimy walls and post on the internet about the monarchy is illegal under the constitution and a harsh lese-majeste law.

In the latest sign that things are not under control, Mr. Prayuth’s Cabinet on Tuesday approved a measure to call parliament back into session to consider measures to end the crisis. The government arrested some protest leaders and declared a state of emergency making rallies illegal.

But fresh protests in at least five locations around the capital have erupted this week, The Associated Press reported, although the numbers for the midweek protest were smaller than they had been over the weekend.

When he was army chief of staff, Mr. Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup by inviting the elected civilian government’s ministers for talks in a Bangkok army base, locking the door once they were inside a room, and declaring himself Thailand’s new leader. He cultivated relations with Washington and was given an Oval Office meeting in October 2017 with President Trump, who wants tighter links with America’s non-NATO treaty ally in Southeast Asia.

But now there is speculation that Mr. Prayuth will face the same fate as those he ousted in 2014. Some analysts say his successor could be new army chief Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, analysts said.

Asked whether a coup was possible, Gen. Narongphan, 57, told reporters this month, “Every army chief has been asked this question, and he invariably says the chance is zero — on condition that no one causes a conflict that leads to violence and unrest.”

Gen. Narongphan is “considered extremely loyal to the current monarch,” said Paul Chambers, an international affairs special adviser at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

“The army may not continue supporting Prayuth, given that a growing number of soldiers see him as slow to crack down on protesters, which the army perceives as inimical to the palace and armed forces,” Mr. Chambers wrote.

‘No more coups, please’

The Bangkok Post, in an editorial this month headlined “No More Coups, Please,” said Gen. Narongphan, as “historically the most likely person to stage a coup,” must “take the lead and make a clear, unequivocal stance that the army will never engage in non-democratic affairs from now on.”

Another possible successor is hard-line former army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, who trained in the U.S. and has made some menacing comments about the protests.

“The disease that cannot be cured is the hatred of the nation,” Mr. Apirat, who now is a top official in the royal household, declared after protesters added limits on the monarchy to their political demands. He has previously accused anti-government forces of “working with some foreign-educated and far-left academics to plant wrong ideas into the minds of students.”

Thailand’s tiny, jungle-based Communist Party surrendered in 1988 and received amnesty.

Mr. Apirat’s father, the late Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, led a junta after staging a coup in 1991.

Political observers in Thailand say Mr. Prayuth may be seeking a compromise on political reform, including fresh elections and changes to the constitution, to head off a more radical “reform” of the monarchy. A surprise military or civilian candidate might then be appointed temporary prime minister until parliament chooses a new leader.

Once seen as a wily political operator who easily outmaneuvered his civilian rivals, Mr. Prayuth appears outwitted by the tactics of Free Youth and other protest groups that have studied the tactics of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in its challenge to China’s communist central government.

The Thai demonstrators use Telegram’s encrypted app and online sites to suddenly announce rally locations and other information. The advisories tell protesters to “be like water,” to move frequently and to use tactics to hide from authorities.

Government officials repeatedly shut Bangkok’s public metro rail services, but protesters arrived at rally sites by taxis, motorcycles and private vehicles.

Police recently arrested two activists after other nearby protesters heckled a motorcade transporting Queen Suthida and her stepson Prince Dipangkorn, who is heir apparent, while displaying their revolution’s three-finger salute, inspired by the “Hunger Games” movie franchise.

The next day, Mr. Prayuth clamped Bangkok under a “serious state of emergency,” extending an existing state of emergency declared in March to fight the spread of COVID-19. The latest edict bans gatherings in public of more than five people, distributing or publishing data that the government perceives as instigating fear or distorting information, and using public transportation or buildings for dissent.

Security forces, with immunity under the edict, can detain people for 30 days in military camps without access to attorneys.

But analysts say the endgame is not clear and that Mr. Prayuth’s determination to cling to power should not be underestimated.

“Underneath the big demands for transparency and accountability of finance and the role in democratic society — and separation of monarchy from politics and the armed forces towards a kind of democratically bounded throne — the situation down below on the ground is nuanced and complex,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who directs Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.

“It is unlikely to change quickly and sufficiently to end up with the ‘genuine constitutional monarchy’ as demanded by the student-led reform movement,” Mr. Thitinan added.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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