From friends to foes: How former yellow-shirt leaders have turned against Prayut
Thai politics has taken a surprising twist amid the worsening COVID-19 crisis, with supporters of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha now joining loud calls for him to quit.
Previously seen as supporters of Prayut’s government, members of the newly formed “Prachachon Khon Thai” (The Peoples of Thailand) group have raised eyebrows by calling on the PM to make way for an outsider. Their contention is that Prayut has failed to tackle the COVID-19 crisis properly, introduce reforms, solve corruption, and is allowing the monarchy to be insulted.
The group appears to be lining up with opposition politicians and the anti-government movement, though their true motive is not yet apparent.
Their call comes as Thailand is being slammed by its third and worst wave of COVID-19 infections, which has pushed the country’s caseload beyond 100,000. Fuelled by outbreaks in eight prisons, Thailand logged a 24-hour record of 9,635 cases on Monday (May 17), while daily COVID deaths have been in double digits for three weeks.
The group on Saturday (May 15) called for Prayut to make a “sacrifice” by stepping down and paving the way for a PM not nominated by a political party. They want this outsider premier to form a “national construction” government to lead the country out of the crisis.
The group points out that provision for an “outsider” candidate is contained in Article 272 of the 2017 Constitution. The Article allows the 250 senators, handpicked by the post-2014 coup regime, to vote along with MPs to choose a prime minister.
The Constitution also permits a non-MP to be appointed as PM, provided the candidate is nominated by a party. But if Parliament fails to vote in any of the candidates from the lists, then an outsider can be chosen for the premier’s job.
The process of appointing an “outsider” prime minister comprises three steps:
First, at least half of parliamentarians (376) must petition the Parliament president to convene a meeting to pass a resolution exempting the nomination of a prime minister from the parties’ lists of candidates.
Second, at least a two-thirds majority, 500 yays from both Houses, is required to pave the way for a candidate outside party lists to be nominated.
Third, more than half of both Houses, or 376 MPs and senators, must vote for the candidate to become premier.
Observers, however, rule out the possibility of Prayut stepping down as long as he has the full support of coalition partners and 250 senators. They also point out that “Peoples of Thailand” have few powerful allies to put pressure on the government.
Meanwhile, their demand for “national construction” is no different from the “national unity government” they have called for since 2006, when they launched protests against the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
Last year, former House speaker Arthit Ourairat, who has been linked to the group, made the same demand and proposed that Article 272 be invoked to make ex-PM Anand Panyarachun premier.
“I don’t think many people are paying much attention to this group. They will not be able to pressure Prayut and I don’t see any suitable ‘outsider’ [PM candidate] right now,” Yuthaporn said.
Nor would it be easy for the group to get the 500 parliamentary votes necessary to pave the way for an outsider PM, he added. Why, after all, would senators vote against the man who appointed them, he asked.
“I don’t think Prayut will quit or dissolve the House. All signs are clear for him to keep his premiership. No coalition party will pull out of government while staging rallies at this time is pointless because nobody will join for fear of infection,” the academic said.
Who are ‘The Peoples of Thailand’?
The Peoples of Thailand group’s move has surprised observers because its leaders helmed the protests against Shinawatra administrations while supporting the military-led governments that ousted them.
The group is led by Nitithorn Lamluea, a lawyer and co-chief of the now-defunct yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which rose against Thaksin Shinawatra, and the disbanded People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) which helped oust the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
Other leaders are Preeda Tiasuwan, chairman of Pranda Jewellery and PAD financer; Sirichai Mai-ngam, former secretary of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation and former co-leader of PAD; and Phichit Chaimongkon, former leader of Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform.
The group was launched in September last year with the stated aim of pushing for national reforms and protecting the monarchy.
In October last year, Nitithorn led dozens of supporters in a demonstration against the anti-establishment movement’s push for Germany to investigate if His Majesty the King had violated German sovereignty by exercising his powers on that country’s soil.
Nitithorn handed over a letter to German Ambassador Georg Schmidt expressing concern about the effort to involve Germany in Thailand’s political conflict.
In April, the Peoples of Thailand submitted a similar letter to the US Embassy, calling on the US not to interfere in Thailand’s internal affairs or fuel conflicts among Thais with different political opinions.
What’s their real agenda?
Observers reckon the group merely wants to send a message to Prayut, who is unlikely to cave into their demands.
“I think they just want to make their voices heard and send a warning to Prayut, reminding him that they still exist,” said Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University.
Wanwichit added that the group may be angry at the fact that Prayut is distancing himself from allies and turning to bureaucrats for help.
“They may dream of intervention by an ‘outside force’, but they are not aiming to actually topple Prayut as conservative groups remain divided with more than half of them still supporting the PM,” Wanwichit added.
Fellow former PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban recently backed Prayut to stay on as PM while also dismissing calls for a national unity government.
“I want to support ‘Lung Tu’ [Uncle Prayut], who has devoted himself to working and leading the country out of the crisis,” Suthep said in a Facebook post.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk