BANGKOK -- Groups of protesters gathered in Thailand's capital on Tuesday to call for the country’s prime minister to step down, saying he has exceeded his constitutional term limit.
A demonstration at Bangkok's Democracy Monument, a traditional protest venue, appeared to draw fewer than 200 protesters, mixed in with bystanders and journalists.
Anti-government activists have been seeking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's resignation for almost three years, saying he holds the post illegitimately because he came to power by leading a military coup that ousted an elected government in 2014.
They have fresh hopes that he can be thrown out of office because of an article in the constitution that limits prime ministers to eight years in office. They say the eight years ended on Tuesday, a day before the anniversary of Prayuth taking the post of prime minister in the military government installed after the coup.
But Prayuth’s supporters contend the countdown on his term began after 2014.
They say the current constitution, which contains the provision limiting prime ministers to eight years, came into effect on April 6, 2017, and that should be used as the starting date. Another interpretation favoring his continuing tenure is that the countdown began on June 9, 2019, when Prayuth took office under the new constitution following a 2019 general election. He must call new elections by next year in any case.
A petition from opposition lawmakers arguing that Prayuth has reached the eight-year limit was sent Monday to the Constitutional Court, with speculation that its nine-member panel might announce on Wednesday whether it will rule on the matter.
The possibility that the court might decide against Prayuth — considered slight because it has generally ruled in the government’s favor in a slew of political cases — has raised tensions.
Polls show the prime minister’s popularity is at a low ebb. He has been accused of mishandling the economy and botching Thailand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, thousands of people took to the streets in multiple protests to demand that Prayuth and his Cabinet resign, while calling for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy to be reformed. The student-driven movement was sparked in part by the court-ordered dissolution of the popular opposition Future Forward Party.
The protest movement at one point attracted crowds of 20,000-30,000 in Bangkok. Several confrontations with the authorities grew violent. A legal crackdown on activists, arrested in many cases under a law against insulting the monarchy because of their criticism of the royal institution, has embittered Prayuth’s critics more.
The major faction of the protest movement, calling itself Ratsadon — The People — issued a statement Sunday affirming its call for Prayuth’s ouster.
“For more than eight years, Thai society has fallen under the darkest and most bitter times. A period under the rule of a tyrant who took power away from the people. A tyrant who inherits power through a mechanism without democratic legitimacy,” the statement said.
It declared that the Constitutional Court “must listen.”
“We, the people, are hopeful that deep down, you, and General Prayuth’s cronies will come to your senses and realize that the time of General Prayuth as prime minister of Thailand has come to an end according to the 2017 constitution of Thailand.”
Fearful of protesters marching to Prayuth’s offices at Government House, security forces have blocked some streets with shipping containers, a tactic they have previously used against anti-government protesters.
At Democracy Movement, where the protest was set to end at midnight and resume Wednesday, a costumed dancer slowly whirled around lit candles placed on the ground while another protester burned Prayuth’s picture in a bowl together with items such as salt and incense sticks in a ritual curse. Firecrackers were set off and protesters raised a three-finger salute that has become their symbol of resistance.
“The people are suffering. It’s difficult to earn a living. Prices are rising. Oil prices are on the rise and eggs are expensive. Everything is expensive. Nothing is good right now. Prayuth shouldn’t run the government anymore," said Manee, a 44-year-old protester who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution by the authorities. "He must get out.”