Will special Parliament session be a time-buying tactic?
Most observers hold little hope that next week’s extraordinary parliamentary session will lead to concrete solutions satisfactory to both sides in Thailand’s ongoing political conflict.
Critics said the move to discuss student-led protesters’ demands in Parliament was just the latest effort by the government to buy time.
The crucial point remains whether Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as the focus of conflict, would cave in to protesters’ ultimatum to step down.
The anti-establishment protesters on Monday repeated their three demands: for Prayut and his government to quit, for changes to the Constitution proposed by civil group iLaw, and for reform of the monarchy. The last call is almost unprecedented in Thai political protests and shatters the taboo against public debate on royalty.
They also added two more demands – stop prosecuting protesters and release all those arrested without condition, and lift the state of emergency.
Parliament is set to be recalled for an extraordinary session on October 26 -27, once the necessary royal approval is given by His Majesty the King.
Paying close attention to the move is Eakpant Pindavanija, a peace studies scholar who advocates people’s representatives who can propose solutions for the political turmoil to organisations and state institutions.
He doubts any solutions will come from calling the extraordinary session, which he sees as an attempt by Prayut and his government to run away from their responsibilities and push the burden onto Parliament.
He added that Prayut and the Cabinet need to take responsibility for their mistakes, including the crackdown on peaceful protesters last Friday night at Pathumwan intersection in the heart of city.
“I have heard the PM say 100, even 1,000 times that he does not want to be in this position, but he is [working] because he loves this country and wants to save it. Maybe it is time he sacrificed himself by giving up his role as ‘national saviour’,” Eakpant said.
Meanwhile, MP Tawee Sodsong said opposition parties were doubtful that the parliamentary meeting could help end the crisis since the real problem was the lack of public trust in Prayut.
Moreover, the government and the unelected Senate had yet to show any sign they were sincere about amending “undemocratic” parts of the Constitution, instead employing delaying tactics to prolong their stay in power, said Tawee, MP for the opposition Prachachat Party.
Prayut said again this week that he would not resign, insisting the government had a duty to protect the monarchy.
However, he appeared to tone down his stance against protesters after Friday’s crackdown saw water cannons directed at peaceful protesters. Prayut also voiced support for the extraordinary parliamentary session.
As of Tuesday, more than 70 protesters were released on bail, though 10 people, including protest leaders such as human-rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, Panusaya “Rung” Sitijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, were still in detention at press time. According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 87 people have been arrested between October 13 and 20.
Too little, too late?
The move to shift the conflict off the streets and into Parliament may have come too late, critics say.
Public faith in parliamentarians was eroded last month when they ignored protesters’ demands and delayed a vote on charter-change proposals by government and opposition MPs.
They voted instead to set up a panel to study the proposals until October 23, in a move widely criticised as a delaying tactic.
Had Parliament passed the charter change drafts in first reading last month, the protest movement may have quickly lost momentum, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
The delay led to their call for a big rally on October 14, which in turn saw Prayut announce a “severe” emergency decree banning gatherings and authorising police to use water cannons against peaceful protesters. The protesters continued to rally for six consecutive days (October 14-19) in defiance of the decree.
Yuthaporn added that the escalating protests may at least pressure parliamentarians to speed up the charter amendment process.
However, the protesters face a long wait before knowing whether the draft bill they support will be considered by lawmakers.
iLaw’s draft could be placed on the parliamentary agenda late next month if its supporters’ signatures can be verified in time, said Somboon Uthaiwiankul, secretary to House Speaker Chuan Leekpai.
Meanwhile, the military-appointed Senate lies in wait as the main obstacle to charter change. Opposition parties have proposed charter amendment bills that would curb senators’ power to, among other things, join MPs in voting for a prime minister.
But the bills can only pass with an okay from at least 84 of the 250 senators. So far, the upper House has taken a strong stance against changing the Constitution.
Also likely to meet fierce opposition from government MPs and senators is the demand for monarchy reform.
Three ruling coalition parties – Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai and the Democrats – on Sunday voiced their support for charter amendments to resolve the political conflict. But they made clear that they will not touch Chapter 1 on general provisions and Chapter 2 on the monarchy.
Another delaying tactic?
Some observers said the extraordinary session could turn into a grilling session for Prayut over the use of force against peaceful protesters and his decision to declare the severe state of emergency. There may even be loud calls for him to step down.
Others predict a déjà vu scenario in which yet another “solution-finding” committee is set up, drawing accusations of another delaying tactic to extend the government’s time in power.
A similar ad hoc panel was set up in July to hear voices from the anti-government movement after it returned to the streets for a second round of protests.
Opposition MPs boycotted the panel, demanding that Prayut either take responsibility or speak to the protesters in person. The panel, which was also boycotted by protesters, completed its report in August but offered no concrete solutions or plans to ease the situation.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk