With Thailand’s parliament set to convene on Monday to find a way out of a political crisis fueled by street protests, one thing is becoming clear: There is no easy solution for the military-backed government.
Protesters calling for democratic reforms and changes to the monarchy were undeterred by an emergency decree prohibiting large gatherings, prompting Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to lift it and call for calm. That was met with fresh calls for his resignation and even more protests.
Now the military and royalist elite who have long held power in Thailand must decide whether to meet some or all protest demands, or take more aggressive steps to shut down the demonstrations.
Here are possible scenarios for where things go from here:
1. Slow-Walking Reform
One key demand is a new constitution to replace the one drafted after a 2014 coup led by Prayuth. Its provision for a military-appointed Senate has been instrumental in helping him retain power following last year’s election.
Prayuth’s government has already said it’s open to certain unspecified changes, and prior to Monday’s special parliamentary session it already initiated a process to begin amending the constitution. Still, that process could end up taking years, and it wouldn’t be the first time: Following the bloody ‘Black May’ uprising against military rule in 1992, it took five years before a new constitution was put in place. And that was nullified in a coup less than a decade later.
Also Read | Thailand braces for more rallies as Prime Minister ignores calls to quit
“The regime could be looking at the same kind of tactics this time around,” said Kevin Hewison, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched Thai politics for decades. They could “drag it out for so long, but eventually don’t make many changes at all.”
2. Prayuth’s Ouster
Calls for Prayuth’s resignation have persisted since last year’s election. While he has so far refused to step down, his rule is contingent on the support of the monarchy and other elites in Bangkok. If protests were to garner wider support from the general population, his ouster may be the easiest way to try and soothe tensions.
Prayuth’s future is now firmly tied to the challenges to the monarchy, said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University whose research focuses on authoritarian regimes and Southeast Asian politics. “If the protests persist too long or become violent, which would see the prestige of the king further questioned, the Thai government is an obvious sacrificial lamb.”
Having already survived a no-confidence vote in February, the government isn’t likely to face much pressure in parliament. Still, even if Prayuth were to step aside, he could just be replaced by someone else backed by the military.
3. Violent Crackdown
Past protest movements in Thailand have often ended in bloody crackdowns, most recently in 2010. With groups of royalists organizing to confront the pro-democracy demonstrators, there are concerns they could happen again at some point — even if the threat isn’t imminent.
“There can always be a violent crackdown,” said Paul Chambers, a Thai politics expert at Naresuan University’s College of Asean Community Studies, adding that such a move could backfire on authorities. The government would “do so only because it is desperate for the survival of military and royal privileges unreformed.”
4. Monarchy Changes
After breaking long-held taboos about publicly criticizing the royal family, protesters are demanding the monarch no longer endorse coups, provide transparency in managing billions of dollars worth of crown assets, and get rid of defamation laws that stifle discussion of the royal family.
Any of those changes would require approval from King Maha Vajiralongkorn, which analysts say is a long shot.
“Royal abdication, scaled back authority for the crown are highly unlikely anytime soon,” said Chambers. “After all, Thailand’s military, political and economic elites ascribe their legitimacy to close linkages to the palace. A weakening of palace power weakens the power of all of Thailand’s vested power players.”