Thailand’s Leader Offers End to Crackdown on Pro-Democracy Protesters

BANGKOK — In a conciliatory speech Wednesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand acknowledged that the country cannot become “a better society through the use of water cannon” and said he intended to withdraw an emergency decree cracking down on pro-democracy protests.

As thousands of demonstrators marched on Government House, home of the prime minister’s office, he urged all sides to resolve their differences through the parliamentary process and said he would to seek to call Parliament into session next week.

“I will make the first move to de-escalate this situation,” he said in a televised evening address. “I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents.”

Protesters appeared to be unmoved by the prime minister’s words and, hours later outside Government House, a delegation hand-delivered a resignation letter to a police commander for Mr. Prayuth to sign.

Over the past 90 years, Thailand’s elected government has repeatedly been supplanted by military regimes — and in the case of the current administration, a ruling junta extended its power through a curtailed democratic process. In recent months, a movement for democracy has been building, inspired in part by outspoken student leaders willing to risk prison by criticizing the government and the monarchy.

While withdrawing the emergency decree would be a first step in easing tensions, it is unlikely that the proposal for parliamentary intervention will satisfy protesters who demand the resignation of Mr. Prayuth, a retired general who has led Thailand’s government since he took power in a 2014 coup.

The protesters are also calling for an overhaul of the 2017 Constitution that Mr. Prayuth pushed through, diluting the power of the electorate by creating an appointed Senate. And, boldest of all, the protesters are seeking to bring the monarchy under the Constitution.

Thailand is headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, one of the world’s richest men, who spends most of his time in Europe. Criticism of the monarchy is extremely rare in Thailand, and comments deemed to be insulting to the king or his family are punishable by as much as 15 years in prison under the country’s harsh lèse-majesté law.

Over the past week, many thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok and other cities, issuing three demands summed up by the slogan: “Resign, Rewrite, Reform.”

On Friday, when thousands of protesters gathered in the commercial Pathumwan district of Bangkok, the police dispersed the crowd with powerful water cannons that drenched demonstrators with a liquid containing a chemical irritant and blue dye.

That move, which the prime minister now seems to acknowledge was excessive, served only to bring out even bigger crowds over the weekend. Protest leaders shifted tactics, starting to call demonstrations on short notice in multiple locations, giving the police less chance to mobilize in force.

After taking a day off on Tuesday, thousands of protesters gathered Wednesday at Victory Monument, the site of earlier protests, and marched about two miles toward Government House, which is heavily barricaded and guarded by the police.

The protesters broke through a barricade several blocks from Government House as the police retreated, allowing the crowd to swarm the gap and move in close to the seat of government.

Helmeted police officers holding shields lined up shoulder-to-shoulder behind razor-wire barricades to keep back demonstrators, many of whom wore helmets themselves. Some also carried umbrellas, which have proven effective against tear gas canisters, although they did not need them Wednesday.

Demonstrators, many of them sitting in the street, chanted, “Reform the monarchy,” and “Who owns the country? The people.”

The police kept water cannons nearby, despite the prime minister’s expression of regret over their earlier use.

In his speech, Mr. Prayuth, 66, sought to cast himself as a leader who must try to unite the country and resolve disagreements among its people.

“We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos, where all sides lose control of the situation,” Mr. Prayuth said, “where emotions take over our better judgment, violence begets more violence, and, as history has shown us all too many times, we can end in a situation where the entire country suffers.”

Mr. Prayuth repeatedly called on the protesters to rely on Parliament to resolve the crisis. But in doing so, he highlighted an institution that has lost credibility with much of the public.

In February, the Constitutional Court dissolved a popular new political party, the Future Forward Party, and banned its leaders from politics for 10 years. The party had placed third in parliamentary elections last year, winning 81 seats.

Some former Future Forward leaders have been helping the young leaders of the protest movement, in some cases bailing them out of jail after they have been arrested.

“The protesters have made their voices and views heard,” Mr. Prayuth said. “It is now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society through their representatives in Parliament.”

In announcing that he would withdraw the emergency decree if there was no further violence, Mr. Prayuth requested that the demonstrators also make concessions.

“I ask the protesters to reciprocate with sincerity, to turn down the volume on hateful and divisive talk, and to let us, together, disperse this terrible dark cloud before it moves over our country," he said. “Let us respect the law and parliamentary democracy, and let our views be presented through our representatives in Parliament.”

Outside Government House, the protesters seemed unmoved.

A young man called out to the crowd over a megaphone, “Are we backing down?”

“No!” the crowd shouted,

“Keep fighting?” he called out.

And the crowd answered, “Fight!”

Adam Dean contributed reporting.

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