Thai parliament votes on constitutional reform after night of chaos

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a coup in 2014, and his supporters have a majority in parliament and so any vote for real constitutional change — which could limit the powers of the military and monarchy — are unlikely to pass. The process is expected to take several hours.

As lawmakers debated charter amendments on Tuesday, protesters calling for constitutional reform rallied outside the parliament building in Bangkok, where they clashed with police and pro-monarchy groups in pitched street battles. Police used tear gas and water cannons with chemical-laced water to disperse protesters who had cut through wire barricades that separated them from police lines outside parliament.

At least two people were shot with live rounds during the protests, police confirmed on Wednesday. Police said one civilian was shot in the hip and a pro-democracy protester was shot in the left thigh.

Four others are believed to have sustained gunshot wounds, but police have not yet been able to talk to them so cannot confirm whether their injuries are from live rounds, according to police spokesman Maj. Gen. Piya Tawichai. They are all being treated in hospital.

At least 55 others were injured in the clashes, Bangkok’s Erawan emergency medical center said, the most injuries sustained during a single night of protests since the demonstrations began in July. The medical center said 32 people were wounded from tear gas and 23 from other injuries.

Riot police throw a smoke bomb back to pro-democracy protesters near the parliament in Bangkok, on November 17, 2020.

Piya said the shots were fired after the police and fire brigade had withdrawn from the area and the two opposing factions had confronted each other just after 8 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET).

Police are investigating the source of the live ammunition, after saying on Tuesday night that their officers did not use live rounds or rubber bullets.

“We didn’t apply measures deemed unnecessary. Measures used were matching with the protesters’ behaviors. Metropolitan Police Bureau would like to reiterate that, there were no rubber bullets. Rubber bullets were not used during our operation last night. And live ammunitions were certainly not used during our operation,” Piya said in a news conference Tuesday night.

Protest leader Parit Chiwarak urged protesters to gather again at Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong Intersection — a major junction in the heart of the capital that has been the site of several demonstrations — at 4 p.m. local time on Wednesday.

For months, youth-led protesters have been calling for changes to the military-drafted constitution, saying it entrenches the military’s hold on power.

The pro-democracy movement, which has attracted tens of thousands of protesters, is the biggest challenge to the ruling establishment in decades. Protesters are calling for the dissolution of parliament and Prayut’s resignation. Protesters have also broken long-held taboos and risked lengthy prison sentences by calling for reform of the monarchy to curb the King’s powers and ensure he is accountable to the constitution.
The palace has not responded to the protests. But earlier this month, King Maha Vajiralongkorn told CNN and Channel 4 that “Thailand is the land of compromise.”
Police use water cannons to disperse pro-democracy protesters during a rally near the Thai parliament as lawmakers debate a charter amendment in Bangkok.

What Thai lawmakers voted on

Members of Thailand’s Senate and the House of Representatives on Wednesday were asked to vote on seven motions that included degrees of reform to the constitution put forward by the government, the opposition and one proposal from the people.

Among the reforms discussed was the undemocratic power of the Senate, of which all of its members — currently 245 — are handpicked by the Thai military and have the voting power to appoint the prime minister jointly with the lower house.

None of the six proposals included monarchical reform.

The seventh motion was brought by Thai social reform NGO iLaw and has received huge support from pro-democracy protesters. Their proposal would abolish the current constitution and pave the way to rewrite a new charter that would cover every chapter, including the monarchy.

By 3:30 p.m. local time, about half of parliament had voted; almost all of the senators and coalition party members had either abstained from making a decision or rejected the iLaw proposal.

Thai Members of Parliament attend a vote on proposed constitutional amendments at Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, 18 November 2020.

Water cannons and rubber ducks

The violence on Tuesday started when a group of protesters tried to cut through wire barricades surrounding the Thai parliament.

Protesters wearing multi-colored rain ponchos, goggles and hard hats threw smoke bombs and paint at police. Police responded by firing water cannon and water laced with a chemical irritant to push the crowds back. Some protesters carried inflatable yellow ducks and used them as shields against the water jets.

Pro-democracy protesters take cover with inflatable ducks as police fire water cannons during an anti-government rally near the Parliament in Bangkok, on November 17, 2020.

Fights also broke out between groups of pro-democracy protesters and royalist supporters, who wore yellow shirts and had been holding a counter-protest outside parliament. Pro-democracy protesters broke through police lines and the two sides began hurling stones and debris at one another — the worst confrontation between the two groups since the start of the protests.

Later in the evening, police retreated from their positions and protesters took over an abandoned water cannon truck, spraying it with graffiti. It is at this time that police said the live shots were fired.

As the chaos unfolded outside the parliament building, located next to the Chao Phraya River, several lawmakers left the area on boats.

Previous attempts by lawmakers to address the protesters’ demands have failed. An extraordinary session of parliament earlier this month didn’t produce any results to ease the political crisis, instead the formation of a national reconciliation committee was proposed.