Thai Student Protests: Finishing the Business of 1932?

The recent student protests constitute something more than a call for the resignation of the prime minister. The ultimate goal is the end of the absolute power of the monarchy, as envisioned by revolutionaries of the class of 1932.

A pro-democracy protester (R) wearing a helmet and skull-themed face mask looks at a line of police during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on 21 October 2020. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha, AFP)
Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Termsak Chalermpalanupap

22 October 2020

Thailand narrowly avoided serious bloodshed on Wednesday (21 October), when police barricades were lifted to allow tens of thousands of protesters to march from Bangkok’s Victory Monument towards Government House. Before disbanding their demonstration, protest leaders gave Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha three days to resign. If he fails to meet this demand, the protesters will escalate their protests.

Earlier on Wednesday evening, General Prayut went on national television calling for reconciliation. He asked the public to let parliamentarians play their role as representatives of the people in addressing the current situation in Thailand. He also promised to end the current stage of “serious emergency” that he imposed on 15 October, if that situation improves. And he soon made good on that promise, as of noon on Thursday.

Prime Minister Prayut in a TV address on 21 October calling for reconciliation. (Photo: Facebook/prayutofficial)

The state of “serious emergency” empowers the prime minister to call in troops to help the police maintain law and order. In fact, a few companies of soldiers were mobilised to secure Government House, the parliament building and the streets leading to the King Vajiralongkorn’s palace. But none of those units were involved in the pre-dawn crackdown of 15 October.

On 21 October, the king signed a decree to convene an extraordinary parliamentary session for next week. Members of parliament from both the ruling coalition and the opposition have agreed to meet their unelected counterparts in the Senate from 26-27 October. They will discuss the worsening political situation arising from the ongoing protests in Bangkok and in the provinces organised largely by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration. There will be no vote at the end of the joint session of the parliament.

General Prayut has persistently refused to resign, saying that he has important work to do to protect the Thai populace from the Covid-19 pandemic and revive the pandemic-stricken economy. His 19-party ruling coalition still supports the prime minister despite protesters’ repeated calls for the Bhumjai Thai and Democrat parties, the second and the third largest parties in the coalition, to ditch General Prayut.

Should the premier stay put at the end of the protesters’ three-day deadline for his resignation, fresh tensions and confrontations with the protesters appear inevitable.

One serious complicating factor is the mobilisation of royalist Yellow Shirts “to defend the monarchy”. Some of the Yellow Shirts had skirmished briefly with anti-Prayut protesters in Bangkok on 21 October. Public gatherings of the Yellow Shirts to reiterate their allegiance to the king and the monarchy are not a violation of any law. They were organised to counter the anti-Prayut protests.

Consensus for a new Constitution

A new consensus is emerging in parliament to opt for the drafting of a new constitution, but the details remain sketchy. Protest leaders are willing to support the formation of a fully-elected national assembly to draft a new constitution – without any preconditions. This is a change from their earlier demand that the “people’s draft constitution” submitted to the House Speaker in September be adopted. The draft was produced by the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), an academic non-government organisation based in Thammasat University. Among other things, the document seeks to ensure that the premier is an elected lawmaker and strip senators of their powers to choose the premier. The draft is backed by more than 100,000 signatures – double the minimum of 50,000 signatures as required for any bill on amending the Constitution proposed by the people.

… reforming the monarchy is actually the protest leaders’ ultimate goal. General Prayut just happens to stand in their way. Whether he stays or not is immaterial

At the same time, parliament is scheduled to convene a new regular session on 1 November, in which it is expected to vote on six pending bills on the constitution. It will also take into consideration iLaw’s “people’s draft constitution”, which its proponents claim is truly democratic and unambiguously shows that sovereign power belongs to the people.

Both the ruling coalition and the leading opposition party Phuea Thai have agreed not to touch sacrosanct constitutional provisions concerning the Thai state being a unitary and indivisible kingdom, the Thai political system of democratic constitutional monarchy and the traditional prerogatives of kingship. These provisions, which include the existence of the Privy Council and the appointment of its members without government intervention, have typically appeared in the first two chapters of successive Thai constitutions.

However, the Move Forward Party, the successor to the dissolved Future Forward Party, has insisted that there should be no preconditions to the drafting of a new constitution. The party, the second largest opposition party, has widespread support among young voters. It advocates new and up-to-date wording to make it explicit and clear-cut that sovereign power in Thailand “belongs to the people”.

Likewise, protest leaders adopt the position that there should be no preconditions to the drafting of a new constitution. They seek to ensure that Thai kings reign under – and not above – the constitution. This is essentially the gist of the 10-point demands for reform of the monarchy that protest leaders announced on 10 August. Protest leaders want to push on for the concrete reform of the monarchy that began with the 1932 bloodless “revolution” that ended the absolute monarchy. They are determined to see that the “unfinished business” of the 1932 revolutionaries are completed in their generation.

In other words, reforming the monarchy is actually the protest leaders’ ultimate goal. General Prayut just happens to stand in their way. In the final calculation, whether he stays or not is immaterial.

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

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/166

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