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Thai protesters to hit streets as parliament eyes charter recast

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Protesters in Thailand are set to return to the streets to demand the government’s resignation as the parliament discusses the amendment of the country’s constitution and changes to its electoral system.

At least five groups are planning to hold demonstrations across Bangkok on Thursday, calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to quit as well as commemorating the Siamese Revolution that marked the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Police have warned protesters against gatherings, on the same day the parliament is due to vote on amendments that largely ignore their demands for a major overhaul.

It will be the first time in six months that demonstrators are expected to descend on the Thai capital after two waves of
COVID-19 outbreaks this year prevented any large gatherings. Protest leaders have said they plan to draw fresh support from citizens frustrated with the government’s handling of the outbreaks and vaccine rollout.

“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 will present a challenge to Prayut’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 spread of infections amid a low vaccination rate could also lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, especially in Bangkok, the epicenter of the current outbreak.

Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan said that he doesn’t want the protesters to gather because of the risk of infections. Prawit, who’s also a leader of ruling Palang Pracharath party, said that the government is “very concerned” and doesn’t want any demonstrations until the outbreak situation improves.

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.

“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 Prayut and his backers retain power after the 2019 elections.

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. On Thursday, lawmakers are expected to vote on the first reading of 13 proposed drafts for the charter amendment.

“The amendment from the key ruling party doesn’t respond to the protesters’ demands at all,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute who researches Thai politics. “It’s doing quite the opposite: helping the establishment retain power and prolonging the regime.”

One of the key proposals that will likely pass is a return to the previous election system that involves voters casting two ballots — one for a candidate and one for a political party — which would give bigger parties more advantages in future polls, she said. Punchada said only proposals from Palang Pracharath party, which backs Prayut, will likely pass.

The other key proposal — which the protesters also sought — is the reduction of powers held by the appointed Senate, which plays a role in electing a prime minister and was viewed as helping Prayut maintain his premiership. But the amendment isn’t likely to muster enough support from the military-backed parliament.

“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.”

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