Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha warned pro-democracy activists Thursday that he would enforce “all pertaining laws” henceforth, as protesters became bolder in criticizing the king ahead of a rally next week outside an agency that manages the Thai monarch’s vast fortune.
During anti-government agitations over the past four months, demonstrators have briefly trapped the queen’s motorcade, mocked royal family activities and sprayed graffiti on some of the numerous portraits of members of the monarchy that dot Thailand’s public spaces.
On Wednesday, pro-democracy protesters sprayed paint and water on the walls of the national police bureau headquarters, including on a portrait of the queen mother.
“Currently, tensions have not sufficiently abated and may develop into a conflict, possibly involving acts of violence,” Prayuth said in one of his most strongly worded statements since the massive youth-led demonstrations began in July.
“Therefore, it will be necessary for the government and the concerned security agencies to enhance our measures by enforcing all the pertaining laws against protestors who violate the law or infringe upon the rights and freedoms of other citizens.”
A key protest leader on Thursday said Prayuth’s statement was akin to a declaration of war against protesters who would keep agitating for democracy peacefully.
“Prayuth declared war against the people. All government officials must choose to stay with the past or with us to create the future,” pro-democracy activist leader Anon Numpa said on his personal Facebook page.
“We will fight with peaceful mean more contentiously.”
Prayuth issued his statement two days after police used water cannons and tear gas on a crowd composed of royalists as well as thousands of people, who were demanding constitutional amendments aimed at reforming the monarchy and democratizing the constitution.
The Erawan Center, which coordinates medical care during emergencies, said that 55 people from both sides of the political spectrum were injured during Tuesday’s demonstrations, most of them from tear gas, and six people suffered gunshot wounds.
International rights group Human Rights Watch said the police’s crowd dispersal methods were an unnecessary violation of people’s rights.
“The Thai government should transparently and impartially investigate all aspects of the November 17 violence,” the New York-based watchdog group said in a statement.
“This should include an inquiry into the circumstances and decision-making process for the extensive use of water cannons and teargas by the police against peaceful demonstrators.”
In his statement, Prayuth said that the government had been trying to find a peaceful solution “based on existing legal frameworks and our system as a democratic government with His Majesty the King as the Head of State.”
Still, the situation had not shown signs of de-escalating, he said.
In this situation, Prayuth said that for public safety, all laws would be enforced, including “prosecutions in accordance with the country’s judicial system, which are in accordance with international standards and practices.”
The Thai PM, a former junta chief who led a military coup six years ago, didn’t elaborate on whether he would enforce the Lese-Majeste law, which criminalizes royal defamation with prison sentences of up to 15 years per offense.
Free Youth, a group that is part of the pro-democracy movement, said Prayuth’s measures may well include the use of the strict law.
“Prayuth’s government issued a statement to fully use legal warfare with all articles of the constitution and that may include Lese-Majeste. This is the last straw,” Free Youth said Thursday on its Facebook page.
“This failed government could do anything. People, don’t yield! Fight or be slaves!”
In June, Prayuth said that Lese-Majeste had not been used in the last few years because the king was merciful.
“What I want all Thais to know is that, lately Article 112 has not been used. Do you know why? Because the King has mercy and advised us not to exercise the law,” Prayuth said at the time, referring to the section of the criminal code that covers Lese-Majeste.
Some legal experts say that Thailand’s sedition law is being used in place of Lese-Majeste. Sedition carries a lower maximum prison sentence, of seven and not 15 years, but its use is increasing, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local legal advocacy group.
Since mid-July at least 90 protesters have been charged with sedition and for political gathering of more than four persons, the advocacy group said.
Prayuth’s announcement on tightening law enforcement is unlikely to prod the students into violent actions during the protests planned next Wednesday onward, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of the Faculty of Political Science of Ubon Ratchathani University.
“I think the violence won’t be escalated because the protesters don’t want that. But it may draw more people out to join the rallies to challenge or cause fear among law enforcement so they step back,” Titipol told BenarNews.
Starting Nov. 25, activists have planned seven straights day of rallies at the Crown Property Bureau, an agency that manages the fortune of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, which is estimated at $40 billion by Fortune magazine.