Thai Political Protests: Drifting into Uncharted Waters

The political temperature in Thailand is set to raise, as protest leaders up the ante and demand the reform of the monarchy. A separate process of constitutional amendment in Parliament will skirt the contentious issue.

A pro-democracy protester spray paints a message next to the police headquarters during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on November 18, 2020. (Photo: Jack Taylor, AFP)
Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Termsak Chalermpalanupap

23 November 2020

Thailand’s festering political crisis saw a tactical truce this week. On Wednesday, Thai senators fielded a tactical retreat, voting for the formation of a drafting assembly to revise the Constitution. This paved the way for constitutional amendments that could lead to the end of the process in which handpicked senators have a say in choosing the country’s premier.

But their gesture of reconciliation may not be sufficient to stop the leaders of ongoing protests in Bangkok from escalating their demands for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha and, more significantly, for the substantial reform of the Thai monarchy.

Protest leaders have called for a rally in front of the Crown Property Bureau Office on 25 November to demand accountability of the royal family in spending taxpayers’ money. The call for the rally came at the end of a boisterous demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Thai National Police on Wednesday. Protesters hurled insults, painted rude and anti-monarchy graffiti and splashed paints on the signboards in front of the headquarters, in an episode of free-for-all vandalism. 

Apparently, protest leaders have now lost interest in pushing for a new Constitution. Their proposed “people’s draft bill” on constitutional amendments failed to win enough votes from government MPs and senators. Their primary concern now centres on upping the ante to solicit a response to their ten demands for the reform of the monarchy, in order to ensure that the Thai monarch reigns under the Constitution and stays above politics. 

One of the protesters’ demands calls for a clear separation of assets and properties that belong to the Crown Property – which technically belong to the Thai nation – from those that belong personally to the King and other members of the royal family. In the face of the protesters’ demands, King Vajiralongkorn has stated publicly that “Thailand is a land of compromise”.

The protest leaders’ gambit is to provoke the police enough so that they will clamp down hard on the protesters. This will put General Prayut deeper in hot water, as well as attract attention of the King.

In Parliament, there is a separate process underway – albeit a less ambitious one compared with the “people’s draft bill” tabled by the protestors. A 45-member committee will develop a consolidated draft bill on constitutional amendment based on two separate bills submitted by the opposition and the ruling coalition. More than the minimum required number of one-third of the Senators voted for the bills on Wednesday – much to the relief of politicians in the Lower House. Both bills propose the formation of a drafting assembly to revise the Constitution. In short, the consolidated draft bill sets the parameters; the drafting assembly will work on the revision of the Constitution proper.

The ruling coalition and the opposition have agreed on this move, with the understanding that the drafting assembly shall leave untouched the Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which pertains to the Thai state being one and indivisible kingdom and Thailand being a democracy in which the king is the head of state. It will also respect Chapter 2, concerning the monarch and his prerogatives, including being enthroned in a position of reverence and not being violated or accused. Most of the Senators can go along with this plan if the sacrosanct and traditional Thai notions in Chapters 1 and 2 are to be left intact.

Strictly speaking, the assembly of drafters will not draft a new Constitution. Instead, it will use the current 2017 Constitution as a working draft. This is to avoid the need to hold a national referendum to obtain voters’ approval to replace the current Constitution with a new one.

The drafters can remove sections containing the controversial “political innovations” of the previous military regime, including the transitory provisions empowering the 250 Senators handpicked by that regime to take part in selecting prime ministers during their five-year term, which ends in 2024.

After the consolidated draft bill has cleared its last hurdle in Parliament, it will be subject to a national referendum. After the endorsement by a majority of Thai voters, it will then be submitted to the King for his signature and promulgation, most probably by the first quarter of next year. 

Thereafter, a new round of struggle focused on the election of the drafters will begin. Those who want to introduce substantial reform of the monarchy will undoubtedly face an uphill battle in winning votes in the provinces, where conservative sentiment remains strong. 

The process of revising the Constitution envisioned in this plan will take about a year. No significant changes concerning the monarchy are expected. Both these factors have forced the hand of some protest leaders, who are trying to speed things up by mobilising their supporters for a show of force in front of the Crown Property Bureau Office this Wednesday. 

However, it is highly unlikely that the police would allow protesters to go near the office, because of the risk of vandalism. Attempts to block the protesters could lead to violence. Should that occur, there will undoubtedly be a public outcry to hold General Prayut responsible.

For his part, General Prayut seems to realise that the situation is escalating out of control. On Thursday he issued a statement to say that law enforcement will be stepped up and that those breaking the law at protest rallies will be dealt with promptly under the national justice system. This is widely interpreted as a warning that those who are violating the lese majeste law will be arrested. Under this law, those found guilty of insulting or threatening royal family members face a jail term ranging from three to 15 years.

The protest leaders’ gambit is to provoke the police enough so that they will clamp down hard on the protesters. This will put General Prayut deeper in hot water, as well as attract attention of the King. The gambit is highly risky, to say the least. But it goes without saying that given the stakes involved, Thailand is navigating into uncharted waters.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/184

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