Thai leader says tensions over protests endanger nation

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Panumas Singprom, left, and Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree raise a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, as they arrive at the Samranrat police station in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Aug, 26, 2020. The two are among the leaders of a student movement organizing protests critical of the government. The police have arrested several other members of the movement on various charges, including sedition. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK – Thailand’s prime minister on Wednesday described the country’s future as dire if escalating political tensions over demands by pro-democracy demonstrators for his government to resign aren't resolved.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said political polarization due to the growing protests could destroy the nation.

“If each side insists on defeating the other politically, our country will collapse,” he told reporters. “If that happens, just wait and see, everyone will live on a fiery land, consumed by flames. If that happens I am at a loss for what to do.”

The student-led protests in many schools across Thailand have been non violent. Leading activists have been arrested on the serious charge of sedition, but courts so far have allowed their release on bail and authorities have made little serious effort to ban demonstrations.

Prayuth faces threats by the demonstrators to escalate their campaign, as well as pressure from conservative groups that oppose the protesters, especially when some extend their criticism to the monarchy, a sacrosanct institution protected by law.

He also is under pressure in Parliament, where a major coalition partner opposes military plans to include funding for two submarines in the new national budget.

Prayuth has framed the problem as one of contending political viewpoints rather than singling out the student protesters for blame.

However, he professed a similar position as army commander in 2014 of seeking to restore calm during more serious political confrontations, but then led a coup that favored the interests of royalist conservatives over pro-democracy forces.

Prayuth served as prime minister in the post-coup military regime and returned as prime minister after a general election last year. Laws guiding the election were widely seen as so heavily rigged in Prayuth’s favor that victory was all but guaranteed, which is why protesters seek new polls. They also want the army-installed constitution to be amended and harassment of government critics to cease.

Police on Wednesday continued their crackdown on the protest movement, arresting two more activists on charges of sedition and several other offenses.

Those arrested — Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree and James Panumas Singprom — are members of the Free Youth movement, a key part of the growing pro-democracy protest coalition.

A total of 13 activists have now been charged in connection with the recent protests. All including the two arrested Wednesday have been released on bail.

The arrests have done little to deter the activists. They have declared they will hold a major protest in September if their demands are not met.