11 July 2024

The pro-democracy movement’s push for charter amendment inched forward in 2020, but at the expense of injuries and violent clashes. At least 55 protesters were injured by tear gas, chemical-laced water cannon and running battles with royalists.

After delaying moves to change the military-backed Constitution, lawmakers in November finally passed two charter amendment drafts proposed by the coalition and opposition parties in the first reading. The drafts pave the way for the setting up of a Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA), but leave the chapter related to the monarchy untouched.

Parliamentarians shot down the so-called “people’s bill” proposed by civic group iLaw, which would have seen the entire Constitution rewritten, including the chapter on the monarchy, by a fully elected charter-drafting assembly. Backed by about 100,000 voters, the first ever voter-driven charter amendment motion debated in Parliament was aimed at erasing the legacy of the 2014 coup.

Parliament’s decision to avoid making amendments that would curb royal power dismayed the student-led anti-establishment movement, which has been rallying for more than five months. The protesters are demanding a democratic Constitution, resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and reform of the monarchy.

Thailand’s current charter, written by military appointees after the 2014 coup, is at the centre of the dispute. Protesters and critics view it as a mechanism designed to help the post-coup National Council for Peace and Order to retain power after the March 2019 general elections. The charter gives the 250 junta-appointed senators power to vote for a prime minister – a power the pro-democracy movement wants to “switch off”.

On November 17, there were violent scenes outside the riverside Parliament as lawmakers inside considered the amendment drafts.

More than 50 people were injured as police repeatedly fired water cannon at thousands of protesters rallying outside Parliament. Skirmishes also broke out between royalists and protesters, while six people suffered gunshot wounds, in what was the most violent confrontation since protests began in July.

Parliament’s votes to pass the amendment drafts were just the first of three steps to pave the way for charter change. The two drafts are being vetted by a 45-member parliamentary panel, which is expected to report the results for second and third readings in January.

Democracy protest Thailand

The panel is debating three contentious points governing how easy it would be to amend the charter. The points cover the number of votes needed to pass an amendment, whether the CDA should be fully elected or a mix of elected and indirectly-elected members, and whether a national referendum is needed to pass a new charter.

These points will decide the fate of the new supreme law, governing whether it can be amended and is democratic enough to be accepted by the public and protesters.

The current 2017 Constitution is written in a way that makes changing it difficult. To be endorsed in the third reading, the amendment bill will need support from more than half of Parliament, or 376 lawmakers comprising at least 84 senators and 43 opposition MPs.

The toughest part will be winning support from the 250 senators, who have been opposed to charter change over fear it will curb their power.

If the amendment draft does pass the third reading, then it will be put to a national referendum as it involves changes to the process of amending the Constitution.

Though no official timeline has been set, Thailand is expected to have a new Constitution by 2022 at the soonest, provided there are no legal hurdles or moves to obstruct or delay the process.

But the road to a new, democratic charter is never easy.

Early this month, the royalist Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) group led by ex-MP Warong Dechgitvigrom asked the Constitutional Court to halt all moves to alter the 2017 Constitution. The group claims the real intention of charter change is to overthrow the democratic regime with King as head of state.