Thai Parliament meets on charter vote as fresh protests loom

Thailand's current charter has been the point of contention since its inception after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha took power in a 2014 coup. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's Parliament is set to vote on a roadmap for amending the nation's constitution, with pro-democracy groups calling for a fresh rally in Bangkok in support of their demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and reform of the nation's monarchy.

The lawmakers began discussions on the constitution amendment on Tuesday (Nov 17), with a vote on the pathway to any changes expected by Wednesday. The Parliament is restarting a stalled process that's aimed at meeting one of the key demands of the protesters, who are seeking a fresh election under a new constitution.

Anti-government protests have swept Thailand since July with activists breaking long-held taboos about publicly criticising the royal family and questioning laws that stifle discussion of the monarchy.

While the youth-led demonstrations have been largely peaceful, they threaten to derail an economic recovery in the tourism- and trade-reliant nation.

Thailand's current charter has been the point of contention since its inception after Mr Prayuth took power in a 2014 coup.

Protesters and critics viewed it as instrumental in helping the royalist establishment retain its grip on power with Mr Prayuth returning as the leader after the 2019 elections. The charter allows the military-appointed Senate, whose powers demonstrators want scrapped, to vote for the premier.

If Parliament ends up supporting a pathway to create a charter rewriting committee, the process of establishing a panel alone could take three to six months, according to Associate Professor Punchada Sirivunnabood at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

Such a panel without representatives from the protest movement may not help resolve any issues, she said.

"What we would likely see at the end of the process is the establishment still keeping the structure that helps them keep the power," Assoc Prof Punchada said. "There might be changes in election laws and Senate power, but those changes would still facilitate the establishment-backed party in the elections. There won't be any changes to laws related to the monarchy."

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said on Monday the protesters' demands should be addressed by the parliamentary process, and the government is willing to listen to all suggestions that could help Thailand move past the current economic crisis.

The pro-democracy activists will gather outside the Parliament on Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to vote for amending the charter and "bringing the monarchy back under the constitution," Free Youth, one of the protest groups said on Facebook.

A pro-royalist group called Thai Pakdee, which is against changing the constitution and any dilution of monarchy powers, gathered in Bangkok on Tuesday to protest against efforts at "changing the country's structure."

The Parliament vote could be the beginning of a process that's expected to take about a year or longer, and include a referendum.

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