Monday, 26 Oct 2020

Thai protesters to rally as lawmakers weigh constitution changes

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) – Thai protesters plan to hit the streets again as lawmakers decide on a pathway to amend the constitution, a move aimed at placating demonstrators calling for more democracy and reform of the monarchy.

Both houses of Parliament will vote on Thursday (Sept 24) on various proposals to set up a committee that will propose changes to the constitution written by a military-appointed panel after a 2014 coup.

About 50,000 demonstrators gathered over the weekend to push for changes that include reining in the power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is scheduled to attend a public event on Thursday.

Protesters also want a range of changes that include scrapping the military-appointed Senate, which played a key role in the return of coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister after the election last year.

“If the Parliament votes to the direction to rewrite the charter, this will ease pressure,” said Ms Maria Lapiz, head of research at Maybank Kim Eng Securities Thailand Pcl.

“The protest group will then re-focus toward ensuring that all or part of its agenda is somehow incorporated.”

The process of rewriting a constitution, which may take about a year and involve a referendum, will ultimately require the King’s endorsement.

The current military-backed constitution, Thailand’s 20th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, made it easy for Mr Prayut and his allies to keep power after an election last year that ended five years of rule by a military junta.

FUELLING PROTEST

The King hasn’t publicly addressed the protests, and Mr Prayut called for patience on charter amendment on Wednesday, saying he was happy that the country was peaceful, allowing the government to “continue our work, especially on the economy”.

While Mr Prayut’s army-backed coalition has also proposed a pathway to amending the charter, it’s unlikely to support any changes that impact its efforts to retain power, said associate professor of politics Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University near Bangkok.

That could end up fuelling the protest movement in the coming months, she said.

The growing protest movement adds to challenge for Mr Prayut’s year-old administration, which is trying to revive Thailand’s trade- and tourism-reliant economy with foreign investors fleeing from its stocks and bonds.

SEEKING RESIGNATION

The demonstrations have escalated since they began in July, with leaders busting long-held taboos in Thailand about publicly criticising the monarchy.

The group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration has called on Mr Prayut to resign and issued a 10-point demand to reform the monarchy, including revoking strict laws criminalising insults against top members of the royal family.

The Thammasat group has also called for a general strike on Oct 14.

They urged supporters to show solidarity by not standing during the royal anthem and have called for a boycott of Siam Commercial Bank Pcl, in which the King is the biggest shareholder.

“As for the rallies, they will proceed,” Dr Paul Chambers, lecturer at Naresuan University’s Centre of Asean Community Studies in northern Thailand.

“The bottom line: opponents of the regime need more cohesion if they are going to effectively pressure conservative forces to make real change.”

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