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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand parliament discards most constitutional reform ideas

Another major protest follows Tuesday's clashes with police and royalists

Pro-democracy protesters flash three-finger salutes at a rally at a major Bangkok intersection on Nov. 18, a day after clashes outside parliament with police and royalists.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Thai lawmakers on Wednesday evening ruled out five of seven proposals for amending the constitution while more than 10,000 young protesters rallied at Ratchaprasong intersection, one of Bangkok's commercial hubs.

The joint session of the house of representatives and the senate had sat for two days to review possible constitutional reforms, including one that would allow changes to the role of the monarchy.

Wednesday's meeting follows the most heated violence in the demonstrations so far, with gunshot wounds reported after clashes involving pro-reform demonstrators, royalist counterprotestors and police.

The seven proposals were put forward by the ruling coalition, opposition parties, and a civic organization called Internet Law Reform Dialogue, or iLaw.

Two of the proposals were sent on for a second reading. The five rejected included the iLaw one most favored by pro-democracy protesters.

The proposal from the ruling coalition that passed the first reading recommended a constitutional reform committee of 150 elected members of parliament and 50 outside specialists.

The opposition proposal that will also go to a second reading recommends 200 elected members for the revision committee. The next stage will be a meeting on Nov. 24 of 15 senators and 30 lower-house members.

Many senators -- all of whom were appointed by the previous unelected military government -- abstained from voting on proposals in large part intended to curb their powers.

A third reading will eventually be needed for final parliamentary approval. In October, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also floated the idea of another national referendum -- which would further slow any reforms.

The petitions from the opposition were filed separately but endorsed by five opposition parties. Opposition objectives include eliminating the senate's power to veto law changes and strongly influence the choice of prime minister.

Under the present constitution, the prime minister is chosen in a joint vote of the 500-member lower house and 250-member senate. Constitutional changes must meanwhile be supported by at least 84 senators.

The motion from iLaw was the most radical, and strongest with regard to reining back the senate. That would have opened the door to reforming the monarchy, one of the three main demands of the young protesters. iLaw collected 70,000 supporting signatures, which was enough for it to be submitted formally to parliament for consideration.

The latest rally at the Ratchaprasong intersection began quietly at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, but within two hours numbers had swelled to over 10,000. Key demands are for the resignation of Prayuth and his government; constitutional reforms in consultation with extra-parliamentary parties; and reform of the monarchy -- but not its abolition.

The Royal Thai Police headquarters is close to the intersection, and student leaders hinted that it might be getting some fresh coats of paint.

The front railings of the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok were daubed with paint by pro-democracy protesters after a recent rally nearby.   © AP

On Tuesday, a smaller number of protesters gathered outside parliament on the first day of the special session. The area around the legislature was heavily fortified with parked buses, concrete barricades and razor wire. Police ordered protesters to maintain a minimum distance of 50 meters, and enforced this requirement with regular powerful barrages from water cannons that began soon after 2:30 p.m. Some of the water used contained skin irritants and strong dyes.

Tear gas was also used on a number of occasions. A police spokesman told reporters that the anti-riot tactics met international standards, but they were certainly the harshest seen in four months of sustained protests.

Soon after 5 p.m. there was finally a clash between the young protesters and tough royalists dressed in yellow who had arrived in the morning to lobby against any amendments to the constitution. The two groups exchanged blows and projectiles, including rocks and bottles.

"What they did yesterday was to provoke us and incite violence," political activist Parit Chiwarak, or Penguin, posted on Facebook. He said it was ruse to justify another coup. "We need to be careful not to fall into their trap," he said, calling for non-violence at the Wednesday rally.

Bangkok's Erawan Medical Centre later confirmed today that at least 55 people had been hurt in Tuesday's violence, six of whom had gunshot wounds. Reporters at the confused scene heard shots at about 8.35 p.m. and call for stretchers. Over half the people given medical attention were suffering from the effects of tear gas, according to the medical authorities.

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