Thai PM Prayut backs down on protest ban, protesters give 3-day deadline to quit

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BANGKOK – Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha backed down on Wednesday (21) over emergency measures he imposed last week to stop three months of protests, but which spurred even bigger demonstrations against his government and the monarchy.

As the former military ruler spoke in a televised address, tens of thousands of people were marching to his office and many said his offer to lift the restrictions was not enough.

The emergency measures from last Thursday (15) prompted demonstrations by tens of thousands of people, the biggest in three months of rallies to demand Prayuth’s removal and reforms to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

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

The measures had banned political gatherings of five or more people and the publication of information deemed to threaten security.

“We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos,” Prayut added.

The protests have become the biggest challenge to Thailand’s establishment in years and have drawn the most open opposition to the monarchy in decades despite lese majeste laws setting jail terms of up to 15 years for insulting royalty.

As Prayut spoke, tens of thousands of protesters marched towards his office at Government House to demand his resignation as well as the lifting of the emergency measures and release of dozens of activists arrested in a crackdown.

About 2km from Government House, a wall of riot police initially blocked marching protesters, but eventually allowed them through.

‘RESIGN’

“It’s not enough. He must resign,” said Too, 54, one of the marchers.

Most demonstrations have been peaceful so far, but police used water cannon against protesters last Friday (16), further fuelling the anger of government critics.

In his speech, Prayut said “terrible crimes had been committed against the police using metal rods and huge cutting implements” on that day, although witnesses reported no such incidents at the time. But he also said Thailand would not “get to a better society through the use of water cannon”.

Protesters say Prayut engineered an election last year to keep hold of power he seized in a 2014 coup. He says the election was fair.

The other demands of protesters are for a new constitution and for reforms to a monarch they say has enabled years of military domination.

One Thai protest leader, Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, said that Prayut must resign despite the lifting of emergency measures.

Tattep said  other demands of protesters could be discussed in Parliament.

“Prayut must resign first and that is the easiest thing to do,” he said.

Protesters had set a three-day deadline for Prayut to quit.

At his office, demonstrators handed over a mock resignation letter. They claimed success after an official took it inside.

“Our goal today is successful. We submitted a letter to Prayut and his representative accepted it, promising it would reach him,” protest leader Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon told the crowd.

“But our fight isn’t over as long as he doesn’t resign. If within three days he doesn’t resign, he will face the people again.”

The palace has a policy of making no comment to media.

In his speech, Prayut said disputes should be resolved in parliament. His supporters are in the majority, the entire upper house having been appointed by his former junta.

“The protesters have made their voices and views heard,” Prayut said. “It is now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society.”

Scores of Thai royalists and anti-government protesters earlier confronted each other at Ramkhamhaeng University.

The yellow-shirted royalists advanced on student protesters and the two sides shouted abuse at each other. Some threw water bottles and other objects before the students pulled back and police stepped in to separate the sides.

-CAN/Agencies

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