BANGKOK -- Thailand's lawmakers voted down a constitutional amendment bill proposed by 135,000 civilians to abolish the Senate on Wednesday, a move that could add fuel to Thailand's pro-democracy protests, which have been regaining momentum once again.
The bill, in its first reading, was voted down by 473 lawmakers, against 206 who supported it and six who abstained. The public wants a greater say in government, a reduction of control by any one group, and an increase in the scrutiny of independent agencies including courts and the armed forces.
Senators were hand-picked by the former junta. Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy prime minister -- Thailand has six -- and leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party, chaired a committee that picked the current crop of senators in 2019.
Other amendments include giving the House and/or the public the right to vote on removing judges and reducing the required threshold for a bill proposed by the public to be considered in parliament. The bill also sought to overhaul supposedly independent bodies such as the bench of Constitutional Court judges, members of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and the ombudsman which acts on complaints about the government from the public. In addition, the bill proposed setting up panels of inspector-generals to monitor the armed forces, courts of justice, and other agencies.
"The country, the religion, and the monarchy must remain," said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, urging lawmakers not to pass the bill according to local media. "Members of the parliament must not act in a way that affects the royal institution."
If the bill had passed the first reading, the vote would have triggered the setting up of a drafting committee, which may have paved the way for making amendments including monarchy reforms in the future.
The outcome of the vote was widely expected, but could still infuriate anti-establishment demonstrators. Thailand's youth-led demonstrations lost steam earlier this year due to COVID-19 and the government's crackdown by invoking the draconian lese-majeste law. Before these heavy-handed tactics, rallies in 2020 attracted tens of thousands.
Now, the movement is regaining momentum again. On Sunday, a few thousand protesters gathered at Pathumwan intersection in Bangkok's central commercial district and started marching toward the German embassy about 2.6 kilometers southeast of the junction in the afternoon. By the evening, the embassy allowed representatives to enter and submit a statement opposing a Constitutional Court ruling given days earlier.
On Nov. 10, the Constitutional Court ruled that three protest leaders -- human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, student activists Panupong "Mike" Jadnok and Panusaya "Ruang" Sithijiwattanakul -- acted to overthrow the democratic institution with the king as head of state by making a speech that centered on monarchy reforms.
During a rally at Thammasat University Rangsit campus on Aug. 10 last year, the three read out a 10-point reform agenda that included abolishing the lese-majeste law. "The three respondents, other organizations, and networks must cease their actions," the judges said.
Although they were not dealt penalties, the verdict gives the government an excuse to crack down on demonstrators for simply raising debate on reforms of the monarchy.
The administration's legal expert Wissanu Kreangam, also a deputy prime minister, said that the court judgment implied the actions by the three were not permitted under the constitution. "They must be more careful in future rallies," he warned.
In the statement to the German embassy, the protesters said their leaders did not want to overthrow the democratic regime and, in fact, wanted to reinforce it. "The increasing power of the monarch in recent years is bringing Thailand further away from democratic regime to an absolute monarchy," the statement said. "This is the resistance against the absolute monarchy."
Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 during the reign of King Prajadhipok, ending 150 years of total control by the royal family.
Approaching the German embassy is a strategy by demonstrators to attempt to put pressure on King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who used to spend most of his time in the European country. On Oct. 26, 2020, protesters submitted a petition, asking the German government to investigate and disclose the king's entry and departure records, in order to determine whether he had conducted Thai state affairs on German soil.
They also question whether he owes 2.7 billion euros ($3.2 billion) under German inheritance laws on the basis of the estimated 10 billion euros bequeathed by his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016.
King Vajiralongkorn did not leave Thailand until these two issues were cleared by the German government. According to German tabloid Bild, the king entered Germany for the first time in 13 months on Nov. 8.
The Thai government's protection of the monarchy has gained international attention. In a universal periodic review by a working group of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Nov. 10, member states made 18 recommendations to Thailand, urging the government respects the freedom of assembly and refrain from the prosecution of peaceful protesters. Germany, among 12 states, recommended a reform, or review of, the lese majeste law.
Under that law, a person can face up to 15 years in jail for defaming, insulting or threatening the king and his closest family. It is often used as a way to silence or threaten liberals, as anyone can report the crime.
According to activist group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 156 people have been prosecuted under the law as of Nov. 3, including 13 minors.
The Thai economy is struggling to recover from COVID-19. Southeast Asia's second largest economy shrank 6.1% in 2020 as tourism, a key pillar, contracted massively from the previous year. The government expects the economy to only expand 1.2% in 2021.
As the country begins to reopen to fully vaccinated tourists, Prayuth has asked protesters to avoid violent confrontation so as to not scare away visitors. Yet, Thailand is likely to continue to be rocked by demonstrations until the next general elections, which must be held by March 2023. Some believe that the prime minister might call a snap election before the deadline.