Thailand’s parliament began a special session Monday to address political tensions amid pro-democracy protests demanding the prime minister’s resignation, constitutional changes and reforms to the monarchy.
As lawmakers debated, the student-led rallies were set to march through central Bangkok to the German Embassy later Monday, apparently to bring attention to the time King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends in Germany.
The public criticism of the monarchy is unprecedented in a country where the royal institution has been considered sacrosanct. It has also led royalists to stage their own counter-rallies and to denounce the protesters.
Speaker of the House Chuan Leekpai cautioned at the special parliament session that it was not to discuss the monarchy’s role.
In his opening speech, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he and his government are aware that this is an era of change, pushed by technology.
“But we have to admit that in Thailand, millions, tens of millions, of people do not want to see change through chaos,” he said, referring to different points of view over the protesters and their demands. “Everyone has their own beliefs.”
He called for Parliament to “creatively find a balance” between competing views.
Constitution under fire
The protesters say Prayuth — who led a coup in 2014 as the army chief — was returned to power unfairly in last year’s election because laws had been changed to favour a pro-military party. They say the constitution, written and enacted under military rule, is undemocratic.
Instead of confronting lawmakers and counter-protesters at parliament, the student-led protesters were marching to the German Embassy.
Vajiralongkorn has for years spent significant time in Germany, but it only became an issue after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016.
Bhumibol was king for seven decades, and though he travelled extensively on state visits in the early years of his reign — including being welcomed with a ticker tape parade in New York City — he only left the country once after the 1960s and that was an overnight stay in neighbouring Laos.
Vajiralongkorn’s ability to spend time abroad has been made easier by changes his office sought and received to the current constitution that no longer require him to appoint a regent when away from the kingdom.
Germany’s foreign minister, recently questioned in parliament by a member of the Green Party, expressed concern over any political activities the king might be conducting on the country’s soil.
The king in recent weeks has been in Thailand with a busy schedule of ceremonial events.
Counter-demonstrations at embassy
A small group of royalist demonstrators gathered outside the German Embassy earlier Monday ahead of the anti-government protesters. They submitted a letter for the German ambassador.
The letter accused pro-democracy protest organizers of seeking to poison the minds of students in order to destroy Thai society, and asked the envoy to carefully consider information from all sources to prevent “fake information” from causing damage.
A small number of police were stationed at the embassy for their demonstration, but several busloads arrived later, with helmets and riot shields, to provide security ahead of the arrival of pro-democracy protesters, whose numbers were expected to be much greater.
In Monday’s special session of parliament, opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat of the Pheu Thai party criticized Prayuth for his handling of the crisis.
He called on the government to listen to all the protesters’ demands, to amend the constitution, and to ease tensions by measures such as releasing arrested students and backing off from threats to censor the media.
He ended his remarks with a call for Prayuth’s resignation, charging that he was part of the problem.
The non-voting session of Parliament is expected to last two days.
The protesters have little confidence in the parliamentary path, declaring the government’s efforts insincere.
They noted the points of discussion submitted by Prayuth’s government for debate did not deal with the protesters’ concerns.
Instead, the points were thinly disguised criticisms of the protests themselves, highlighting the risk of the coronavirus spreading at rallies, the alleged interference with a royal motorcade by a small crowd earlier this month, and illegal gatherings and the destruction of images of the royal family, protesters said.
Prayuth in his opening remarks referred to these as the reasons for holding the session.