BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's U.S.-backed authoritarian leader
seized power six years ago in a military coup but now appears
bewildered, vulnerable and unable to stop two months of street
protests against the government and previously monarchy.

Some people wonder if Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha can stay at the
top, who might replace him, and will bullets be used against the tens
of thousands of peaceful, idealistic youths demanding revolutionary

Many Thais predict the protesters will not be able to curtail the vast
influence and wealth of 68-year-old King Vajiralongkorn.

"Now it is understood that the country needs people who love the
country and love the monarchy,” the constitutional king said in a
speech on October 16.

Prayuth agreed and recently said, "What the government needs to do is
to protect the monarchy.

"There are millions of people who are loyal to the monarchy, and they
are in all provinces. So please help us defuse the tension."

University students and school children have been blocking afternoon
traffic in scattered cities, voicing often vulgar speeches against
Prayuth and the monarchy, and disappearing at around 8 pm.

Some of what protesters shout at rallies, spray paint as graffiti,
post on the Internet, and say in news interviews about the monarchy is
illegal under the constitution and a harsh lese-majeste law.

Punishment can be 15 years in prison.

When he was army chief of staff, Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup
by inviting the elected civilian government's ministers for talks in a
Bangkok army base, locking them in a room when they arrived, and
declaring himself Thailand's new leader.

Prime Minister Prayuth was later hosted in the White House by
President Trump who wants tighter links with America's non-NATO treaty
ally in Southeast Asia.

Prayuth's successor could be new Army Chief General Narongphan
Jitkaewtae, analysts said.

Asked if a coup was possible, General Narongphan, 57, told reporters
on October 6:

"Every army chief has been asked this question and he invariably says
the chance is zero, on condition that no one causes a conflict that
leads to violence and unrest."

General Narongphan is "considered extremely loyal to the current
monarch," said Paul Chambers, an international affairs special advisor
at Thailand's Naresuan University.

"The army may not continue supporting Prayuth, given a growing number
of soldiers see him as slow to crack down on protesters which the army
perceives as inimical to the  palace and armed forces," Chambers

"As the army chief and historically the most likely person to stage a
coup, General Narongphan must take the lead and make a clear,
unequivocal stance that the army will never engage in non-democratic
affairs from now on," the Bangkok Post said in an October 9 editorial.

"A half-hearted promise like the one he made after taking office this
week is sorely inadequate," it said under a headline: "No More Coups,

Another possible successor is hard-line former Army Chief General
Apirat Kongsompong who trained in America.

"The disease that cannot be cured is the hatred of the nation," Apirat
declared after protesters expanded anti-Prayuth rallies and demanded
limits to the monarchy.

Protesters are led by shadowy figures who "are working with some
foreign-educated and far-left academics to plant wrong ideas into the
minds of students," Apirat said in a speech at the Royal Thai Army
Headquarters one year ago.

"The old [communist] members who became politicians and academics
still have their implanted communist chips," in their brains, he said
echoing Cold War rhetoric.

Thailand's jungle-based, tiny Communist Party surrendered in 1988 and
received amnesty.

Apirat's father, the late General Sunthorn Kongsompong, staged a coup in 1991.

That coup was followed by a new constitution and parliamentary
election in March 1992.

The resulting government's coalition appointed former Army Chief
General Suchinda Kraprayoon as prime minister.

Suchinda's regime ended in "Black May" 1992's disputed official death
toll of at least 52 of the 200,000 pro-democracy protesters who
demonstrated in Bangkok against his prime ministry. Unofficial tolls
put the number of casualties considerably higher.

In 2019, Apirat was rewarded for his staunch loyalty to King
Vajiralongkorn and elevated to the Crown Property Bureau handling the
monarch's wealth.

On September 30 upon retirement from the military, Apirat was promoted
to become a lord chamberlain in the royal household, operating on the
king's behalf.

Prime Minister Prayuth may depart by splitting the protesters and
agreeing to their demands to resign, dissolve parliament, allow fresh
elections and amend the constitution to grant more political and human
rights -- but not "reforming" the monarchy.

A surprise military or civilian candidate might then be appointed
temporary prime minister until a new parliament chooses a new leader.

Prayuth meanwhile appears outwitted by the Free Youth and other
protest groups who use Telegram's encrypted app and online sites to
suddenly announce rally locations and other information.

Their advisories include translations into Thai from Hong Kong's
Chinese-language protest manuals, advising a "be like water" mobility
instead of occupying sites, plus what to wear and how to hide.

In response, authorities repeatedly shut Bangkok's public metro rail
services. But protesters arrived at rally sites by taxis, motorcycles
and private vehicles.

On October 18, the regime made it illegal for anyone to photograph
themselves at a rally and post that selfie online.

Police reportedly busted more than 10 people for selfie crimes,
punishable by two years imprisonment and a $1,330 fine.

Protesters disguised with anti-coronavirus masks continued to
gleefully shoot selfies with dramatic scenes of tens of thousands of
demonstrators in the background.

Police recently arrested three activists under a separate criminal law
after other nearby protesters heckled a motorcade transporting Queen
Suthida and her step-son Prince Dipangkorn who is heir apparent, while
displaying their revolution's three-finger salute, inspired by the
"Hunger Games" movie.

The men denied flashing three fingers or voicing any dissent during
the brief incident in Bangkok on October 14. Punishment can be life

"Underneath the big demands for transparency and accountability of
finance and the role in democratic society -- and separation of
monarchy from politics and the armed forces towards a kind of
democratically-bounded throne -- the situation down below on the
ground is nuanced and complex," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who
directs Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and
International Studies.

"It is unlikely to change quickly and sufficiently to end up with the
'genuine constitutional monarchy' as demanded by the student-led
reform movement," Thitinan wrote.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book,
" Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at