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Prayut, It’s Time to Go

Opinion: UCA News’ Benjamin Freeman argues Thailand’s PM has overstayed his welcome with crackdown on peaceful student protesters

Thousands of student-age protestors face off against Thai police at Bangkok's Pathumwan intersection Oct. 16. (Photo: Tyler Roney for the Bangkok Herald)
Thousands of student-age protestors face off against Thai police at Bangkok's Pathumwan intersection Oct. 16. (Photo: Tyler Roney for the Bangkok Herald)

Whether he was feigning ignorance or just trolling the media is unclear, but shortly before hundreds of riot gear officers began blasting jets of chemical-laced water from high-powered cannons young, peaceful protestors Friday, Prime Minister expressed shock that anyone should want to resign.

“Let me ask you what I did wrong? What did I do wrong? I ask you,” the man behind the 2014 military coup and the years of often-violent suppression of dissent that followed asked in a fit of pique Friday.

His surprise came off as laughable given the litany of reasons that the world has for wanting him to relinquish power. And it didn’t take long for his true nature to seep through the façade.

At the very same news conference, the former army chief appeared to issue a veiled threat of deadly violence against the protesters, many of whom are in their teens and early twenties.

“Don’t be careless,” Prayut said. “Don’t be reckless with your life. Prepare to die any moment by illness or whatever,” he elucidated in a musing sort of way. “Death may come today or another day. Everyone can die at any moment.”

As an ex-soldier, Prayut surely knows a thing or two about death and how to inflict it.

Prayut has clung to power for far too long after the coup thanks to blatantly rigged parliamentary elections. He refuses to resign despite growing discontent with his military-led administration amid the coronavirus pandemic and Thailand’s resulting economic collapse.

For well over six years, with the powerful army’s backing, Prayut’s government has stifled political dissent, routinely violated basic rights like free speech, and turned the clock back on people’s hopes for a democratic society with real rule of law.

Only last week, police, presumably on his orders, arrested dozens of students and numerous leaders of youth-led pro-democracy protests. The young protesters are facing sedition charges and have reportedly been held without legal representation.

Even a Thai journalist was detained simply for reporting on the police crackdown on protesters on Oct. 16.

“Thai media are being targeted as part of the crackdown on the current round of protests,” a local online newspaper reported. Although the journalist was later released after paying a fine, his arrest was a warning to other journalists that they could be next.

Thai authorities can now arrest almost anyone at will at any politically themed rally after Prayut issued a “Severe State of Emergency” decree on Oct. 15, on top of an already existing emergency decree.

The new decree bans any gathering of more than five people and allows the authorities to censor news reports they deem “a threat to national security.” The Severe State of Emergency is expected to last for at least a month, but it could be extended indefinitely.

Yet, despite such draconian measures by a repressive and antidemocratic government, young Thais are pledging to carry on with their protests until Prayut resigns and their other demands for democratic reforms are met.

To all intents and purposes, Prayut is fighting a losing battle as his administration, which has been mired in numerous allegations of graft over the years, appears to be deeply unpopular. His hardline stance has made it even less popular.

Opposition politicians and international human rights groups have panned Thailand’s obdurate prime minister for seeking to stifle peaceful youth-led protests through draconian means.

The Severe State of Emergency decree is “a vague [and] drastic order that will lead to more people being unfairly arrested, detained and prosecuted,” stresses Ming Yu Hah, a senior rights advocate at Amnesty International. “These moves are clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathizes with the protesters’ views.”

Rather than “ruling by decree and mass arrests, the Thai authorities must reverse course,” the rights advocate said.

Some of the harshest criticisms of the Thai prime minister’s heavy-handed tactics against protesting students, thousands of whom are still in high school, have come from his fellow Thais.

For the sake of Thailand and all its citizen, Prayut would do his fellow Thais a big favor by giving up that power peacefully.

The opinions expressed here are entirely that of author Benjamin Freeman and do not necessarily reflect that of the Bangkok Herald or its partner, UCA News, which published the longer, original version of this commentary.