BANGKOK — With Thai protests intensifying against the monarchy, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha's hold on power is growing more tenuous by the day.
A poll published this week by Bangkok's Suan Dusit University showed more than 62% of participants said discontent with Prayuth was the key reason for the recent demonstrations. The former army chief has run Thailand for more than six years, taking power in a 2014 coup and returning as premier after elections last year under a constitution produced by his military regime.
Prayuth has so far refused to resign in the face of repeated deadlines set by protesters to step down. During a special parliament session this week, he said that the government would restart in November a stalled process for amending the constitution and accused many lawmakers of having "short memories."
"If I didn't take power in 2014, what would happen?" he told Parliament on Tuesday. "Would there be riots in Thailand? Did you forget all the things that happened before I came in? Did you forget all the chaos, all the corruption?"
But even if Prayuth quits, protesters say they aren't going anywhere until the political system engineered by the royalist elite is also gone. That means they'll continue pushing their other demands: a more democratic constitution and more accountability for King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
"The protest movement won't end until we've reached all of our three demands," Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a key protest leader, said in a phone interview. "Even if Prayuth quits, someone like Prayuth will replace him and we'll go back to the same problems again. All the changes in the government, the charter and the monarchy need to happen at the same time."
The growing resolve of key protesters shows that there's no easy short-term solution to end the movement. They've adopted Hong Kong-style tactics to keep police off balance, prompting Prayuth to lift a state of emergency in Bangkok last week after authorities struggled to enforce it.
Much like the Hong Kong protests, which made demands for democracy that threatened an entrenched power, the Thai demonstrators are looking to upend the royalist elite that has run the country for much of its history. While China managed to stem large-scale protests by implementing a repressive national security law, Thailand's leaders potentially face a greater risk with a more aggressive response.
Any action that leads to bloodshed — which has occurred throughout Thailand's history, most recently in 2010 — could further hurt an economy dependent on trade and tourism that is already reeling from the pandemic. Thailand's benchmark SET Index has fallen almost 24% this year, the most in Asia.
Prayuth would only consider resignation if the government loses legitimacy due to using force on protesters or an economic crisis, according to Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, head of the Department of Government at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science.