Anti-government protesters display a mock funeral portrait of Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha during a demonstration

Anti-government protesters display a mock funeral portrait of Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha during a demonstration calling for the release of pro-democracy protest leaders, in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 7 March, 2021. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Another Movement Takes Aim at Prayut

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A new movement of “fed-up” Thais has arisen, calling for a less ambitious goal — getting the Prime Minister to resign. This will be a tall order.

A new movement of “fed-up Thais” has emerged to undertake a do-or-die mission: overthrowing Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha.

On Sunday (4 April), a large cheering crowd, including Red Shirts from the provinces and royalist Yellow Shirts from Bangkok, came together to launch their historic campaign of 4/4/4, or 4 April BE 2564 (AD 2021), at 4:00 p.m. “This is the beginning of the end of General Prayut,” declared Jatuporn Prompan, the leader of the movement.

Jatuporn appealed to the assembled crowd and the “millions of people” watching a live feed of the event to let bygones be bygones and to unite and save Thailand from six more years of General Prayut’s undemocratic rule. “General Prayut doesn’t deserve to stay in power a single day longer”, added the former firebrand leader of the Red Shirts.

Jutaporn has some ground to stand on. After all, General Prayut is approaching the mid-way point of his government’s four-year term. Should the political situation deteriorate, he can at any time dissolve the House of Representatives and call an early general election. The polls would almost certainly allow him to return to power for another four-year term with the backing of a large majority of the 250 senators who were hand-picked when he was head of the five-year military regime that took power after the May 2014 coup. 

Jatuporn has adopted a change of tack in recent years. The 56-year-old politician concedes that many of his friends have misunderstood him since his release from prison in August 2018. He had served one year and 15 days leading the Red Shirts to challenge the royalist administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in March and April 2010. After serving his fourth stint of imprisonment, Jatuporn has now transformed himself into an advocate of non-violent means of strengthening Thai democracy.

Not Criticising the King or the Monarchy

Jatuporn emphasises that his movement will not call for the reform of the monarchy. He hopes to attract support for the singular goal of forcing General Prayut to quit. 

With his passive stance on monarchical reform — which he considers as “too heavy to carry forward” — Jatuporn is breaking ranks with his former comrades in arms. Other Red Shirt leaders have grander goals — they demand the resignation of General Prayut, the writing of a new and democratic constitution, and concrete reforms of the monarchy, including scrapping the lèse majesté law. 

… many Thais are staying on the sidelines and waiting anxiously to see what Jatuporn is going to do next. This means that it would be challenging, to say the least, for Jutaporn to attain his goal of knocking General Prayut out of his perch.

Jatuporn says that reforming the monarchy remains a dangerously divisive issue, unlike opposing General Prayut. The latter is gaining popular support, especially after the failure of Parliament last month to move the process of constitutional amendment forward. Amending the problematic military-drafted 2017 Constitution was one of the “urgent” policy issues that General Prayut announced in Parliament after returning to office at the head of a democratically elected government in July 2019. Yet General Prayut has done nothing concrete to support the amendment process. 

Jatuporn considers General Prayut’s failure to be “another lie” to the Thai people — just like the general’s promise soon after staging the 22 May 2014 coup “not to stay [in power] too long” and “to return happiness to the people quickly.”  

At first, Jatuporn and his colleagues had planned to hold daily “talks” to further “expose” General Prayut and to build up pressure against the prime minister. But on 7 April, partly owing to the new wave of Covid-19 infections in Bangkok, he announced a temporary suspension of the daily gatherings until after the upcoming Songkran water festival (11-18 April). Thereafter, Jatuporn promises more decisive action to force General Prayut to resign “within 47 days”. This is the same period as the short-lived premiership of General Suchinda Kraprayoon who took power after the 1991 coup in Thailand. 

Marching on the Government House is a tactic on Jatuporn’s mind. The venue Jatuporn has chosen as his “operational centre” will continue to be the May 1992 memorial site, near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, where the ashes of pro-democracy protestors killed by security forces in that month are interred.  

The brutal crackdown occurred two months after the elections of March 1992. The polls produced no viable elected civilian government leader. Before long, General Suchinda stepped in and took over the premiership – even though he had promised not to further intervene in Thai politics after the 1992 polls. Large protests erupted in Bangkok and bloody crackdowns followed. In the end, it took the intervention of the late King Bhumibol to end the crisis.

King Bhumibol as the “peacemaker”

Jatuporn now says he wants to replicate the May 1992 “model” in his effort to oust General Prayut. His gambit is to use the May 1992 memorial site as his stronghold.  

Jutaporn could well be seeking to provoke a violent crackdown to create an opportunity for King Vajiralongkorn to step in to stop the bloodshed. If he does so, the King would be following the footsteps of his deceased father in being a “peacemaker”. The king has, after all, stated that “Thailand is a land of compromise”.  

It is clear that Jatuporn is banking on the growing hatred of General Prayut shared by many Thais – Red Shirts as well as Yellow Shirts alike. These Thais are disappointed by the premier’s continuing failure to keep his promises.

Still, many Thais are staying on the sidelines and waiting anxiously to see what Jatuporn is going to do next. This means that it would be challenging, to say the least, for Jutaporn to attain his goal of knocking General Prayut out of his perch.

In the meantime, Jutaporn can take solace in the fact that General Prayut has failed to stop youth-led protests demanding monarchical reform. This has rendered him dispensable in the eyes of many powers-that-be. Of late, General Prayut has appeared to be grumpier than normal. Perhaps he has fresh doubts about the longevity of his premiership.

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