Hundreds of Thai pro-democracy demonstrators marched to parliament on Friday to demand that lawmakers amend the constitution to pave the way for a fresh election in order to remove Thailand’s military-based government from power.
For two hours, protesters waved Thai flags, held signs and chanted slogans denouncing the government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a former junta chief.
“If Prayuth’s government refuses the amendment, we will go to the streets to protest,” demonstrators vowed.
They called on the government to reestablish the 1997 constitution, widely seen as the nation’s most liberal one. They want it to replace the 2017 constitution, whose electoral provisions were drafted in a way to allow Prayuth and many members of the old junta to retain power after a general election last year.
The March 2019 polls were the first held in Thailand since the former army chief led a military coup that toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra five years earlier.
After the polls, Prayuth was elected as prime minister by parliament. His election was aided by the 2017 constitution, which allowed the votes from the 250-member senate hand-picked by his junta to combine with the votes from the lower house.
One of the coordinators of Friday’s march, Yingcheep Atchanont, a program manager for iLaw, a civil and political rights research and advocacy group based in Bangkok, said the protesters were calling for democracy and equality in Thailand.
“There are more people joining in the movement today than we expected. We know that it is not easy, but the outbreak of COVID-19 cannot stop us from trying to make a difference here,” Yingcheep told BenarNews, referring to the global pandemic. “Now the ball is in their court, we have to wait and see what will happen next.”
Upon reaching the parliament building in Bangkok, the protesters presented a letter outlining their demands to Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, a Prayuth adviser.
In addition to his role with the prime minister, Pirapan leads a 49-member House committee examining possible amendments to the 2017 constitution.
Pirapan told the protesters that MPs would consider their demands.
“We will look into the proposal and make sure to include it in our study,” Pirapan said.
Anusorn Unno, a lecturer at Thammasat University who joined the protest, said the new constitution needed to be changed.
“It was designed to give the power to the junta. We have to put pressure on MPs because they do not intend to amend the law, they want to stay in the power for a very long time,” he told BenarNews.
The protesters took to the streets in defiance of Thailand’s strict public gathering law which prohibits more than 10 people to congregate at any one time.
Their action followed a series of protests on university campuses in February, where thousands of Thai students called for democracy to be truly restored. The students also protested an order by the Constitutional Court to disband the opposition Future Forward Party (FFP).
Those protests were allowed because the public gathering law is not applicable to campuses.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch called on Thailand’s government to drop what it called politically motivated criminal charges against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the auto-parts billionaire who founded FFP.
Earlier this week, the Election Commission announced it was seeking criminal charges against Thanathorn for running for parliament even though he was not qualified because he held shares in a media company. Thanathorn could face a decade in prison if convicted of the charges.
“Since the Constitutional Court wrongfully dissolved the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn has faced a barrage of arbitrary legal actions from agencies packed with military junta-appointed personnel,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a news release on its website.
“By eliminating opposition parties and threatening their leaders with prison terms, the Thai government is heading down the path of neighboring countries where autocratic, single-party rule has thoroughly destroyed any pretense of democracy or respect for human rights,” he said.