Thailand's prime minister has vowed to use all available laws to quash protests calling for his ouster, after parliament rejected key demands of the demonstrators by rejecting a motion to revamp the country's constitution and overhaul the monarchy.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in a bloodless coup six years ago, issued a statement on Thursday, addressing months of increasing unrest in the capital, Bangkok, led by students demanding a more freer and more open society.
The on again, off again demonstrations have intensified in recent days, with police on Tuesday injuring dozens of protesters. Several protesters received gunshot wounds, though the circumstances of the shootings were not clear and police denied firing on them.
The demonstrators have demanded that parliament take up the changes to the country's constitution, which was rewritten on Prayuth's watch to bolster the military's role in government and secure his place in office.
On Wednesday, there were more demonstrations in front of the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police, where protesters vented anger at authorities by throwing paint on the sign in front of the building and defacing it with graffiti.
The demonstrators want Prayuth to step down and to curb the power and vast wealth of the royal family, which is considered the richest monarchy in the world, worth an estimated $40 billion — much of it tied up in lucrative land holdings.
"The situation is not improving," Prayuth said in a statement, adding that there was "a risk of escalation to more violence."
"If not addressed, it could damage the country and the beloved monarchy," he said.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, acceded to the thrown in 2016, has proven less popular than his father, who enjoyed near cult-like status in the country of 70 million people.
Although Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king wields considerable influence and Thai law, known as lese majeste, carries harsh penalties for anyone who publicly criticizes the crown.
In his short reign so far, the new king has become embroiled in several scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the palace. In a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, protesters in Bangkok last month jeered a motorcade transporting Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida.
Prayuth said earlier this year that laws against insulting the monarchy had been temporarily suspended at the king's request, but in his statement Thursday, his reference to "all laws" was considered by some as signaling that enforcement of the lese majeste might resume.
The government's refusal to consider the protesters' demands was more or less "a foregone conclusion," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who teaches political science at Bangkok's Chulalangkorn University.
"The established centers of power are very clear that they are not going to compromise," he says. "The prime minister will not resign, there will be no rewrite of the constitution and there will be no reform of the monarchy."
Thitinan says the students are digging in as well.
"What we are seeing now is escalation leading to radicalization because the protest movement is dead-set on reforming Thailand," he said.
They want to reset the rules "for a more democratic future where Thailand can move forward and also for Thailand to be more democratic with equality as a base," he said.
More violence could be ahead, as activists say they are planning a major rally next Wednesday in front of the Crown Property Bureau, a quasi-governmental agency that helps manage the royal families fortune.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Political unrest in Thailand shows no sign of ending. Today, the prime minister warned that the monarchy would use all possible laws against protesters who are demanding his removal and a new constitution. And dozens of people were injured in fighting with police outside of parliament yesterday. Here's Michael Sullivan with this report from Thailand.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Just a day after Tuesday's confrontation outside parliament, the worst violence between protesters and police in months. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators were added again last night in front of the Royal Thai police headquarters in the commercial heart of the capital.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)
SULLIVAN: The protesters were angry at police for Tuesday's violence outside parliament, which included the use of water cannon against protesters and left dozens injured, with six suffering gunshot wounds.
They were also angry at lawmakers for refusing to consider changes to the Constitution that could have included reform of Thailand's powerful monarchy, one of the protesters key demands, along with the resignation of coup leader turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: It was a kind of a foregone conclusion of what to expect.
SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
PONGSUDHIRAK: On the establishment side, the established centers of power are very clear that they are not going to compromise. The three demands are, for them, unacceptable. The prime minister will not resign. There will be no rewrite of the Constitution. And there will be no reform of the monarchy.
SULLIVAN: And it's not just the establishment, he says, that's digging in, but the students as well.
PONGSUDHIRAK: Because the protest movement is dead-set on reforming Thailand and resetting the rules for a more democratic future where Thailand can move forward with equality as a base.
SULLIVAN: Protesters say their next rally will be next week in front of the Crown Property Bureau, the agency that helps manage the monarchy's multibillion-dollar fortune. They say they'll keep on for seven more days after that in hopes of achieving their goals, possibly setting the stage for more violence. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.