Thais Rally for Constitutional Change as Lawmakers Reject Most Amendments

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Nattaphon Phanphongsanon -
Bangkok
2021-06-24
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Thais Rally for Constitutional Change as Lawmakers Reject Most Amendments Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak (left), Jatupat (Pai Dao Din) Boonpattararaksa (center) and a fellow activist gesture with the three-finger salute as they take part in an anti-government protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. June 24, 2021.
[Nattaphon Phanphongsanon/BenarNews]

Thailand’s parliament voted late Thursday against amending the constitution to reduce the powers of the Senate, legal advocacy group iLaw said about one of the key demands for constitutional reform by pro-democracy protesters, hundreds of whom rallied in Bangkok earlier in the day.

Lawmakers approved only one constitutional change: a return to an electoral system in which voters cast separate ballots for a candidate and a political party. That clause, which was written into the 1997 constitution, is not in the 2017 constitution, which a military government drafted and remains in force today under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former junta leader. 

The youth-led pro-democracy activists, who were marking the 89th anniversary of the end of absolute monarchical rule in Thailand, have been protesting since last July to demand Prayuth’s resignation, the removal of 250 military-appointed senators, and reforms to laws protecting the powerful monarchy.

None of these demands were approved in a late-night vote after the first of three readings of proposed amendments to the Constitution.

“The motion number 13 is the only proposal accepted,” Chuan Leekpai, the house speaker said in parliament during the proceedings that were telecast live, referring to a proposal by the Democrat Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

iLaw, a group that opposes Prayuth’s government, said the proposal refers to a  return to the election system framed under the 1997 constitution when voters cast two ballots – one for MPs and for political parties.

The proposal accepted was one of 13 from opposition and coalition parties. Proposed changes to the monarchy had already been ruled unconstitutional, on June 18, and were not part of the 13 that were voted on Thursday.

The proposed changes needed to be approved by 366 of 734 eligible voters – from both the lower house and senate – of which 84 had to be senators.

Chuan called for a committee to be set up to discuss a second reading of the proposed amendments within 15 days.

Another vote will be held after the third and final reading, following which any amendments approved by both houses would then have to be voted on by Thailand’s 51 million electorate in a referendum.

Earlier this week, lawmakers voted in favor of a bill allowing the three-step process that would lead to a referendum on constitutional amendments.

The approval came after a Constitutional Court ruled in March that parliament must take proposed changes to the Constitution for a vote before the people through a two-tiered referendum.

Navaporn Sunanlikanon, an academic at Chulalongkorn University, said she doubted that most of the proposed amendments would see the light of day.

“With the systemic mechanism of power retention of the Prayuth administration, I don’t see that the constitutional change would happen any time soon,” Navaporn Sunanlikanon, an academic at Chulalongkorn University, told BenarNews.

‘Senate’s power to select PM’

Like the protesters, opposition politicians were focused on changing the provisions that gives the Senate unprecedented authority to select the prime minister. The opposition also proposed the inclusion of a provision to outlaw military coups.

Prayuth first came to power after a coup he led in May 2014, when he was the army chief.

Nearly five years later, Thailand held its first post-coup general election. He was elected as prime minister by parliament in March 2019 and aided by the military-backed 2017 Constitution, which allowed the votes from the 250-member senate hand-picked by the junta to combine with the votes from the lower house.

As per the previous constitution, only the members of the lower house were eligible to select the prime minister from party-nominated candidates.

The 2017 Constitution’s provisions are intended to extend Prayuth’s tenure as PM, Rangsiman Rome of the Move Forward Party told parliament on Thursday.

“The top priority issue to be solved once and for all is the abolishing of the Senate’s power to select the prime minister,” Rangsiman said.

“These 250 senators are in fact the mechanism for the prolonging of the power for Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha.”

Chadej Insawang, one of those 250 junta-appointed senators, defended the power of the senate, saying it was acquired as part of the 2017 Constitution, which was approved via a referendum.

The protesters, of course, believe the 2017 Constitution further undermined democracy following Prayuth’s 2014 coup.

“I want to have a total rewrite of the military-sponsored Constitution because it is illegitimate [and accepted] through an opaque referendum,” Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a protest leader and one of the hundreds who rallied earlier on Thursday, told Benar News.

“I want a change to, or a fresh all-out rewrite of the Constitution, which belongs to the people.”

Another protest leader, Panupong Jadnok, said pro-democracy activists would continue to pressure Prayuth.

“This rally is a duty of the citizens. The Prayuth administration failed to solve the COVID problem. We have to pressure him,” Panupong, one of the activists who has been charged with royal defamation, told BenarNews.

“Three demands is not asking too much.”

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