Thai Parliament to decide on special meeting as protesters rally

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied in Bangkok for a fifth day on Oct 18, 2020.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied in Bangkok for a fifth day on Oct 18, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thai lawmakers are set to meet on Monday (Oct 19) to decide on convening a special Parliament session to discuss ways to end an escalating protest movement calling for the ouster of Prayut Chan-ocha's government and the reform of the monarchy.

Chuan Leekpai, speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, will meet with lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties in Bangkok and will decide if the house should be convened before its next scheduled session from Nov 1. The extraordinary session will need King Maha Vajiralongkorn's endorsement.

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied in the capital for a fifth day on Sunday, defying a ban on gatherings and the threat of crackdowns by the police. The protesters have broken long-held taboos about publicly criticising the royal family and questioned laws that stifle discussion of the monarchy.

They're also calling for the resignation of Prayut's government and a rewriting of the constitution, which was drafted by a military-appointed panel after the premier, a former army chief, took power in a 2014 coup. The activists say the charter was instrumental in helping Prayut retain power after the 2019 elections.

"The government may start the process for charter amendment to reduce some pressure but it likely won't result in everything that the protesters demand," said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

A state of emergency in the capital and the arrests of more than 50 leaders have failed to deter the mostly student-led protesters, with the movement calling for daily demonstrations until their demands are met. The protests are gaining momentum amid the worst economic crisis facing the tourism- and trade-reliant nation, which has passed a US$60 billion (S$81.4 billion) stimulus to battle the pandemic-triggered slump.

The escalating protest movement across Thailand may still hamper the government's plan to gradually reopen tourism to foreign visitors on the back of its relative success in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

The mass gatherings have raised concerns of a renewed virus outbreak. The country reported five new local virus transmissions on the weekend from the Tak province, that borders Myanmar, which has seen a surge in cases ahead of national elections scheduled for Nov 8.

"At some point in the next two weeks, the daily protests may lose steam because it would get tiring for protesters with the police arresting leaders and dispersing crowds," Punchada said. "The protesters may change to holding big gatherings weekly or biweekly instead, although the momentum of movement will remain online."