After four days of bloody political unrest, Thailand’s revered monarch intervened in the nation’s political crisis Wednesday night, prompting the government to release the imprisoned leader of pro-democracy forces, offer conditional amnesty for other protesters and agree to amend the constitution to end the turmoil.
Pressure had been building throughout the day on Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, the target of the anti-government protests, to step aside or face a possible military takeover. But he appeared to have emerged victorious with his power intact, the opposition gaining little more than vague promises of improvement. It was not clear if the street protests that have disrupted life in the city since Sunday would end.
The announcement of a compromise came after a fourth day of running street battles between demonstrators and security forces.
The government imposed a 9 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew and ordered the closure of three newspapers that have been openly critical of the government.
Early today, Thai television showed Suchinda being escorted into the Royal Palace to see King Bhumibol Adulyadej. With Suchinda was Chamlong Srimuang, the leader of the pro-democracy forces, and a former prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who acted as an intermediary for the king.
“I ask you not to confront each other but to work together to end the current violence,” Bhumibol said, the three politicians kneeling at his feet like errant schoolboys visiting the principal.
Suchinda and Chamlong then appeared together in a joint television broadcast and said they are coordinating to end the violence that has left at least 40 people dead and 600 wounded, according to government figures.
The prime minister said that Chamlong, who was among the 2,000 demonstrators arrested Monday and Tuesday, is being released and allowed to return to his home.
He also said the government will consider passing an amnesty bill that would apply to protesters “who joined the demonstrations with an innocent heart.”
The prime minister, who was armed forces commander until his appointment last month, said Parliament will convene Monday to amend the constitution. The proposed amendment is designed to require that the prime minister be an elected official.
It was Suchinda’s appointment April 7, without having participated in an election, that caused an outpouring of opposition to the government.
Suchinda’s political future was left in doubt by today’s announcement because it was not clear that the constitutional change would force him to step down, as the demonstrators have demanded. Some of his supporters have suggested that an amendment might apply only to future leaders.
The pro-government parties in Parliament had already agreed to amend the constitution before the violence erupted Sunday, but it was their ambivalence on Suchinda’s status that caused the demonstrations to continue. That uncertainty appeared to remain.
Chamlong, noting that the government has agreed to change the constitution as the opposition had demanded, said the “situation has softened” after the king’s intervention.
But he stopped short of calling off the demonstrations, saying he was asking the people “not to support or cooperate with those who are causing chaos now so that the situation can go back to normal as soon as possible.”
Neither Suchinda nor Chamlong mentioned the key issue in the protests: the demand that Suchinda resign and a new prime minister be elected.
A spokesman for Chamlong’s party said that after the television appearance, angry students began telephoning to complain that the deal being offered was a blow to the pro-democracy forces.
Negotiations between Suchinda and Chamlong are supposed to be carried out under the auspices of Prem, who was prime minister from 1980 to 1988 and was widely mentioned Wednesday as the leader of a possible successor regime if Suchinda is forced to step down.
Rumors swirled through Bangkok of an impending military takeover by dissident army troops loyal to Prem. The government was forced to deny that additional troops were moving into Bangkok or that the king had been placed under arrest.
It was not clear whether the curfew announced by Suchinda’s government earlier in the day would remain in force after the compromise.
A government statement ordered all Thais to remain home at night except for diplomats, ambulance drivers and travelers heading to the airport.
The government also announced the closure of the English-language newspaper The Nation and two Thai-language dailies, according to a spokesman for The Nation. The paper has been one of Suchinda’s most outspoken critics.
Violence flared again Wednesday in the same quarter of Bangkok near the ornate Grand Palace where Monday’s violence erupted. Demonstrators burned two garbage trucks and knocked over concrete planters. Troops in battle gear moved in and dispersed the rioters.
Later, the demonstrators regrouped at Saphan Khao bridge near the capital’s Democracy Monument. Soldiers attacked them with guns blazing, chasing them through a nearby fruit market. About 40 people were arrested.
Another major demonstration took place in defiance of the curfew at Ramkhamhaeng University, the nation’s largest, where 30,000 to 40,000 people occupied the campus and blocked an adjacent boulevard with curbstones and other barriers.
The demonstrators appeared peaceful and listened to political speeches. There was no sign of the police or army troops.
King Bhumibol has been the constitutional monarch since 1946. Although he has no personal power, he is widely revered by his countrymen, and his request to Suchinda to resolve his differences with Chamlong amounted to an ultimatum.
Today’s broadcast was the king’s first appearance since the unrest began. But a technical problem at the national television network made it difficult for most Thais to hear what he was saying.
Wearing a tan suit and paisley tie, the king received the politicians in a throne room at the palace. Suchinda, in a gray business suit, and Chamlong, wearing his blue worker’s clothes, crouched on the floor in front of him.
An indication that the king was losing patience with Suchinda came earlier in the day when his daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, was interviewed in Paris by Thai television and said the king has asked her to return home immediately because of the crisis.
In a remark widely interpreted as critical of the military’s handling of the riots, the princess said: “Right now, they talk about property damage. In fact, when we say that this property was damaged or that property was lost, this is not as important as people, (even) one life.”