BANGKOK, June 24 (Reuters) – A year after student protests against Thailand’s military-backed government began, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha faces growing anger amid a growing wave of infections in coronavirus and a sluggish economy.
This time, some of those calling for Prayuth’s resignation are his old allies.
Three separate groups of protesters marched on Thursday demanding the resignation of Prayuth, who first came to power in 2014 when, as army chief, he led a military coup against a government elected.
Several political parties in parliament – including two in Prayuth’s ruling coalition – are preparing to try to change the constitution drafted by the military that helped him stay in power until the 2019 election, allowing a Senate appointed by the junta to vote for Prime Minister.
Assuming continued support from the military and the mighty King of Thailand, it is likely that the new impetus to change political power structures will come to naught again.
Yet frustration with Prayuth in particular has grown since last year, when it was mostly college students calling him out.
“People have to come out now to clean the dirt out of our system,” said political activist Nittitorn Lamlua, who will lead a group of protesters in Bangkok on Thursday.
Nittitorn, 56, is a veteran of the ‘Yellow Shirts’ movement made up of predominantly royalist conservatives who have protested against a succession of elected populist governments, the last of which was overthrown when Prayuth took power.
Nittitorn shares few views with the young student protesters from last year. In fact, he led a counter-demonstration to defend the king and the monarchy – considered a sacred institution by many conservative Thais – against the call by students to restrict the king’s powers.
But Nittitorn ticks off a list of the prime minister’s flaws: mismanagement of the coronavirus and the economy, inadequate defense of the monarchy against calls for reform, and failure to restore true democracy with the 2019 elections.
“My goals are all for the nation, religion, monarchy and people and democracy, and it is this government that pushed me to come out again, through their failures and mismanagement,” Nittitorn said. .
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the government was ready to listen to criticism, but the prime minister still had an obligation to lead the country during the COVID-19 crisis and would only act in the best interest of the public.
“The government tries not to oppose particular groups,” he said.
“PRAYER IS THE PROBLEM”
Across Thailand’s political divide with Nittitorn is Jatuporn Prompan, a former leader of the 2009-2010 populist “Red Shirt” movement supporting exiled ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, whom Nittitorn protested against and who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.
“We see Prayuth is the problem for the country, and he needs to be fired,” Jatuporn said.
The third wave of coronavirus underway in Thailand – which has seen the most cases and deaths, reaching a record 51 deaths on Wednesday – has only fueled anger.
“Public pressure is palpable, rising and people want answers,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies.
Still, he said, with the Army and Palace still behind Prayuth, it’s hard to see how he could be impeached.
The 2017 military constitution states that the Senate, appointed by Prayuth’s former junta, votes for the prime minister with the elected House of Representatives, making his impeachment nearly impossible.
This week, parliament is debating amendments to this constitution.
Along with the opposition parties, even two members of Prayuth’s ruling coalition – the Bhumjaithai and Democratic parties – are in favor of changes that would remove the Senate’s right to vote for prime minister. The next general election is scheduled for 2023.
But changes to the constitution also require Senate approval – and the appointed body is unlikely to vote to diminish its own power.
Support for Prayuth from his pro-army Palang Pracharat party and the powerful army appeared to be unwavering despite mounting pressure elsewhere.
Another sign of trouble for Prayuth could be that King Maha Vajiralongkorn is expressing his disapproval of his leadership, although Thitinan says the rumors about it have turned out to be false.
“There is no sign for me at the moment that the palace support has been withdrawn,” Thitinan said.
“We’re kind of stuck with Prayuth indefinitely, until the next election.”
Written by Kay Johnson Editing by Robert Birsel
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