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Thailand protesters rally as parliament weighs constitution change

Lawmakers vote to set up panel on six amendment proposals

Pro-democracy protesters flash their mobile phone lights during a mass rally to call for the ouster of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and reforms to the monarchy in front of parliament in Bangkok on Sept. 24, 2020.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thousands of Thai protesters assembled outside the country's parliament on Thursday as lawmakers debated on accepting constitutional amendment motions submitted by the ruling coalition and opposition parties.

The parliament decided to delay votes on accepting six motions, instead voting to set up a panel to study each motion. The committee will involve lower and upper house members.

"Senators, get out!" shouted crowds in front of the parliamentary building. From the bed of a truck, two speakers addressed the importance of Thursday's gathering and insisted that senators are not qualified as they are not truly chosen by the general public.

The scene was filled with white ribbons and three-fingered salutes, both expressions of silent rebuke to the government. Some protesters tied a large white ribbon on the entrance gate to parliament, as guards and bystanders watched.

Parit Chirawat, a leading activist known as Penguin, promoted Thursday's protest during another rally over the weekend, which attracted 30,000 to 50,000 demonstrators, according to local reports. Parit, one of the leaders of the student-led United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, urged people to gather at parliament to pressure house members into considering revisions to the constitution.

The parliament building is located by the Chao Phraya River in central Bangkok's Dusit district. Although past pro-democracy protests have been peaceful even with large numbers of participants, six boats were ready for politicians to evacuate in case of emergency.

The protest was initiated by pro-democracy group Free People, which hosted a rally attended by 20,000 people on Aug. 16.

Thailand's parliament consists of 250 members in the upper house and 500 in the lower house. A majority of the 750-member body is needed for a constitutional amendment motion to pass. The majority must be comprised of at least one-third -- or 84 senators -- from the upper house and 20% of opposition party members.

The constitution, Thailand's 20th since 1932, was drafted at the military's behest and was adopted through a national referendum in 2016. It gives the senators a large say in choosing the prime minister and a powerful veto tool over constitutional reforms. The current senators were hand-picked by the former junta and are led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Free People on Thursday demanded the parliament to lessen senators' involvement in legislative process, allow forming a draft council with fully elected members, and make sure Thailand to be a democratic country with the monarchy truly under the constitution.

An open letter addressed to King Maha Vajiralongkorn was submitted on Sunday by the UFTD's key figure Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul. One of the demands in the letter was for revising the constitution by an elected body, including sections relating to the monarchy.

The ruling coalition's motion proposed an amendment, which paves a way to form a charter drafting assembly, with 150 members elected by the general public and 50 selected from as-of-yet unnamed groups. The assembly will be able to write a new charter.

Leading opposition Pheu Thai Party submitted a motion that would create a fully elected drafting council.

Four other proposed amendments were submitted by other opposition parties. These included removing senators from choosing a prime minister, curbing the Senate's powers in following up on national reforms, allowing citizens cast two ballots -- one ballot for a candidate and another ballot for a party - in general elections, and dropping the recognition of all laws, orders, and announcements issued by the former junta.

If parliament's decisions do not fully answer the protesters' calls, they could further fuel the activist movements in near future.

A committee of 45 parliamentarians will be formed to examine the amendment motions that were accepted. The group will be comprised of 15 senators, 16 ruling coalition members and 14 opposition party members.

Other groups have expressed their views through petitions. Nonprofit human rights organization Internet Law Reform Dialogue, or iLaw, gathered the names of 100,732 people who favored revising the constitution. The list was handed to parliament on Tuesday.

Warong Dechgitvigrom, founder of ultraroyalist group Thaipakdee, collected 130,000 signatures from people who oppose any changes. "The current constitution was approved in a referendum by 16.8 million Thais," said Warong. "The voices of the majority of Thais need to be respected," referring to the poll which drew 29.7 million out of the nation's 50 million registered voters.

Thai protesters assembled outside the country’s parliament on Thursday as lawmakers voted on accepting constitutional amendment motions. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

However, the public is questioning the credibility of Thaipakdee's signatures, although Warong insisted they were valid. While the royalists only asked for a phone number and home address, iLaw required proper identification so that it could sift out duplicate or fake signatures.

The building has been in use since August 2019, but part of it remains unfinished. The project was initiated in 2008 and construction, which began in 2013, was supposed to have been completed in 900 days.

But nearly five years of delay prevented lawmakers from moving out of the old parliamentary building on time before its land was given back to the Crown Property Bureau at the end of 2018. An auditorium thus had to be rented for parliament to assemble until the new building became usable. The new parliament is also surrounded by military compounds.

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