Thai Protesters Return as Parliament Backs Charter Recast

Thai pro-democracy protesters hold up a three finger salute during a rally in Bangkok on March 24, 2021. (Source: Getty Images)

Thai Protesters Return as Parliament Backs Charter Recast

Thailand’s parliament voted in favor of a proposal for the amendment of the country’s constitution and its electoral system, ignoring sweeping changes demanded by pro-democracy protesters who returned to the streets after a six-month hiatus.

The endorsement came after thousands of demonstrators gathered in several locations across Bangkok on Thursday, calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to quit as well as commemorating the Siamese Revolution that marked the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The protesters also demanded “a constitution that comes from the people” and spurned the charter that’s part of “the mechanisms leading to the continuation of the current regime.”

The only proposal approved by the parliament is a return to the previous election system that involves voters casting two ballots -- one for a candidate and one for a political party. A dozen other proposals, including several that sought to reduce the powers of Senate, which plays a role in electing a prime minister and viewed as helping Prayuth maintain his premiership, didn’t muster enough support from the military-backed parliament.

It’s the first time in six months that demonstrators descended on the Thai capital after two waves of Covid-19 outbreaks this year prevented any large gatherings. Similar demonstrations were held in several cities across Thailand, with at least one group planning another gathering this weekend. Protest leaders have said they plan to draw fresh support from citizens frustrated with the government’s handling of the outbreaks and vaccine rollout.

Thai Protesters Return as Parliament Backs Charter Recast

“The leaders are counting on wider support. They’ll try and appeal to a broader range of constituents, highlighting a number of shortcomings of the government, from its autocracy to its incompetence,” said Christopher Ankersen, associate professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs. “We can expect a long summer of protests, arrests, intimidation and violence ahead.”

The return of large-scale protests to Bangkok presents a challenge to Prayuth’s government, which is trying to revive the economy, and risks upending the plan to reopen the country as early as October for the crucial tourism sector.

The youth-led, pro-democracy movement began gaining momentum in mid-2020, reaching its peak late last year when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators joined calls for the government’s resignation and increased transparency and accountability from the monarchy. The protesters broke a long-held taboo about publicly discussing the royal family, which sits at the apex of power in Thailand.

In response, the government has intensified its crack down on demonstrators, arresting leaders for sedition as well as royal defamation, which is punishable by as many as 15 years in prison for each instance. The government has said that it’s simply enforcing the law and hasn’t targeted any groups in particular.

Steadfast Response

“The repressive response from the state indicates the fear of those who hold power. The sophistication and steadfastness of response by activists indicates that they’re not swayed by this fear,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “As the impact of the pandemic on the economy and future opportunities continues to intensify, citizens are likely to question how well authoritarianism is working and call for change.”

Among the key demands of youth-led groups is the overhaul of the constitution, which was drafted during the military regime, to make it more democratic. The protesters allege the charter was instrumental in helping coup leader-turned-premier Prayuth and his backers retain power after the 2019 elections.

But the parliament is “doing quite the opposite” of what the protesters are demanding, said Punchada Sirivunnabood, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, who researches Thai politics. The new electoral system will give bigger parties, including the ruling party that backs Prayuth, more advantages in future polls, she said.

Earlier this week, lawmakers voted to endorse a bill that paves the way for a national referendum on rewriting the constitution, but the parliament likely won’t pursue more significant changes now as it focuses for the next several months on making minor tweaks that don’t require public endorsement.

“All this is window dressing,” New York University’s Ankersen said. “Powers of the Senate, the 20-year national plan, the eligibility of non-elected prime minister, and the role of the monarchy -- those are really the bedrock of the current political system that the establishment is going to make sure aren’t changed.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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