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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's Prayuth rejects protest call to dissolve parliament

Prime minister also reveals plan for forum to hear student concerns

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has not been smiling much lately.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has rejected calls -- including for the dissolution of parliament -- made by protesters on Sunday at the biggest political gathering since a coup in 2014.

Dressed in a blue Thai-style tunic, Prayuth appeared grumpy as usual at a press conference that followed the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday. It was his first official appearance since a weekend protest attracted around 20,000 people.

Prayuth spoke in a monotone for about nine minutes before taking questions, but did not touch on the protest before leaving the podium.

In a more informal encounter with local media on Monday, the prime minister shrugged off the demands, saying the government had to adhere to procedures.

He did, however, reveal that the government plans to hold a forum to canvas student opinion.

According to local reports, Prayuth also opened up about the severe stress he has been under lately, but without elaborating on the causes. "Have you ever woken up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and not been able to go back to sleep?" he asked reporters. "You take two sleeping pills, but they don't work anymore -- I'm sure a lot of people have had that experience." 

Sunday's peaceful rally was staged by Free People, a mostly youthful group. A cross-section of people from older generations also participated.

Free People is working to broaden its support base, and has called for an end to official harassment that inhibits people exercising their rights; the rewriting of contentious parts of the constitution; and the dissolution of both chambers of parliament. The group set September as a deadline for these moves.

The 2017 constitution, Thailand's 20th since 1932, was drafted at the military's behest and adopted after a national referendum in 2016. It gives 250 military-appointed senators a large say in choosing the prime minister, and an effective veto on constitutional reform.

Politicians are also pressing for constitutional revisions but by parliamentary means. On Monday, Sompong Amornwiwat, leader of the Pheu Thai party, filed a motion to revise Article 256 of the constitution. Pheu Thai leads the opposition and contains supporters of a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006 by another coup.

Article 256 requires constitutional amendments to have the support of at least one-third of the senate, or 84 members. Given the senate's military provenance, this is widely regarded as a block on greater democracy.

House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, who served twice as prime minister in the 1990s, accepted the motion. He said the document would be checked and placed on the agenda of the House of Representatives in 15 days.

Jurin Laksanavisit, leader of the Democrat party as well as a deputy prime minister and commerce minister, on Monday welcomed the opportunity to debate the opposition on constitutional reform. Others envisaged problems.

"To amend the charter, 84 votes from the senate are needed, otherwise there are two ways to get a new charter -- via a coup or a popular uprising," said Senator Kamnoon Sidhisamarn. "But these options can lead to violence, so parliament should be used to resolve the problems."

Sunday's rally has had an effect on schools. Social media has been filled with images of youngsters giving the trademark three-fingered salute and wearing white ribbons during morning assembly. Both are expressions of silent rebuke to repressive government.

To foster patriotism, schoolchildren have always been required to sing the national anthem in front of the national flag each morning. Videos have been posted of students being scolded for their salutes and ribbons, and at least one videographer had his smartphone slapped to the ground.

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