Updated at 7:30 a.m. ET on 2020-08-18
A half-dozen Thai opposition parties submitted a parliamentary motion Monday seeking to amend the country’s military-backed constitution, a day after at least 10,000 people took part in the largest anti-government protest in recent years.
Protests against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha have spread across campuses and spilled into the streets since mid-July, with students and others calling for the government to dissolve parliament, stop harassing dissidents, amend the 2017 Constitution and lessen the power of the monarchy, among their demands.
The constitution, they say, was tailored to enable Prayuth, a former army chief who became the country’s leader after spearheading a coup in 2014, to maintain power.
On Monday, Pheu Thai Party leader Sompong Amornwiwat and five other leaders in the opposition bloc submitted a motion to House Speaker Chuan Leekpai at the parliament offices, citing what they described as flaws in the constitution.
“Today’s key content is to amend the current constitution’s Article 256,” Sompong told reporters without elaborating on what he sees as flaws.
Article 256 has requirements for parliamentarians to follow to amend the constitution, according to Chuan, who described it as “finicky.” He said it takes 15 days to validate a motion before it can be included on the agenda for a session of parliament.
Sutin Klangsaeng, the parliament’s opposition whip, said the demands articulated by leaders of the street protests, even though public, were not submitted officially to the opposition parties.
“Requests for changes in the monarchy is what we think all sides should listen to, exchange points of view and learn together,” Sutin told BenarNews by phone Monday.
Meanwhile, a key senator pointed out that amending the current constitution requires votes of 84 (or one-third) of the 250 senators. Prayuth has counted on the support of those senators, whom he hand-picked under the constitution.
Still, at least one senator sees the possibility of such action.
“I agree we should get this through the parliament and I believe all senators are ready to vote for the benefit of the people,” Sen. Kamnoon Sithisamarn told reporters on Monday.
On Sunday, between 10,000 and 20,000 protesters – mostly students – gathered at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, the historic venue for rallies, to hear organizers call for an end to military coups and to replace governments led by former junta figures with truly democratic ones. They also spoke of “a dream” where Thailand is a democratic country with the king as the head of state under the constitution.
Anon Numpa, a human rights lawyer who is one of the main leaders of the protests, said parliament could achieve the reform by removing the senators who were hand-picked by Prayuth and allowing a new constitutional drafting committee to be formed.
“The first step is to ditch the appointed senators through an amendment of the constitution. Then draft a new constitution and have the prime minister later dissolve the House (for a new election) and let true representatives administer to the country,” Anon told BenarNews before he spoke at Sunday’s rally.
Anon has been making the case that the rallies are good for the country.
On Aug. 4, the lawyer activist told protesters that “the monarchy has much more power than the system allows,” while calling for a change.
Six days later, during a rally at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani province, protesters made 10 demands including a call to revoke Article 6 of the Thai Constitution that shields the monarchy from prosecution and to revoke Lese-Majeste, the nation’s strict law forbidding criticism of the royals.
He and two other leaders of the protests, students Panupong Jadnok and Parit “The Penguin” Chiwarak, have all been released on bail after being arrested and charged with sedition and other violations for their roles in the protests. Parit was released from custody on Saturday, a day after his arrest. The other two were freed on Aug. 8 after they were arrested and held overnight on Aug. 7.
Biggest rally since 2014 coup
Sunday’s demonstration in Bangkok was the biggest one since tumultuous protests rocked the Thai capital in the lead-up to the May 2014 coup led by Prayuth.
After overthrowing the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth installed himself as junta chief and prime minister. Last year, he was elected to the post after the country’s first general election since the coup, returning to power on the strength of the senate voting bloc, which pushed him above the one-half threshold of parliament members.
On Monday, Prayuth said the new protests were hurting the country.
“See who is behind them. Which political parties went there (to the rallies)? That’s not right. It makes our country worse,” Prayuth told reporters on Monday, adding that the parliament had a committee to handle potential changes to the constitution.
Breaking to a degree from his boss, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said protests were acceptable as long as the protesters did not infringe on the rights of others, the Bangkok Post reported.
“The government is duty-bound to provide security for the demonstrators,” Prawit said.
In a subsequent interview with the newspaper, Prawit said the ruling Palang Pracharath Party was ready for constitutional amendments and would propose changes through its executive board.
“It must be amended,” the deputy PM said, according to the Post, but without specifying how the constitution needed to be changed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated that the Aug. 10 rally at Thammasat University took place at its campus in Bangkok.