This year must not see a repeat of 1976

This year must not see a repeat of 1976

Pro-democracy students put up a sign encouraging people to sign up for a charter amendment campaign. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Pro-democracy students put up a sign encouraging people to sign up for a charter amendment campaign. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

If Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is really serious about averting the current political crisis stemming from the confrontation between pro-democracy and right-wing factions, he must immediately take steps to have the charter rewritten and set up a drafting panel.

Over the past few weeks, members of the public have witnessed conflict and a deepening divide in society, which could possibly escalate into a confrontation between those with differing political opinions.

Undeniably, the military-sponsored 2017 constitution is a major cause of the conflict, given that it endorsed the coup-makers' longer stay through the 250-strong Senate.

While Prime Minister Prayut pledges support for charter amendment, he still has reservations, saying the government will have to consult coalition parties so there is a consensus.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also said the government has prepared for the process, but refused to reveal details. That looks more like window dressing.

Indeed, the government should not treat the escalating conflict as a political game. On the contrary, it must quickly put in place a mechanism for charter amendment under Section 256 of the Supreme Law.

The government should not drag its feet for long. The country appears to be inching toward the events of 1976 when Thais killed Thais following a brutal crackdown on student protesters at Thammasat University. The students were protesting against the return of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, the dictator who fled the kingdom during a student uprising in 1973.

In 1976, right-wing extremists accused student protesters of being communists trying to abolish the highest institution. In barbaric acts, many students were killed, clubbed to death. Such was the hatred that some were set on fire.

Fast forward to 2020. We are facing a confrontation involving several elements similar to what we saw in the 1970s: the left vs the right, a dictatorship versus an administration with the National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO) support and differing opinions about the monarchy.

Today's student movement is much like its predecessor in the 1970s, but social media is a new factor in the game that enables the young generation to make quick and vibrant moves.

With three demands -- charter amendment, House dissolution and an end to state intimidation of activists -- the flash mobs have gained significant momentum.

Yet, their fourth demand, reform of the monarchy, introduced during a rally on Monday at Thammasat University, was a shock. Some speakers even openly criticised the monarchy in what was seen as "crossing the line", prompting the university's administration to come out and apologise.

The students are fearless. They still plan to gather in flash mobs at different university campuses. It is believed that three academics, namely Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Pawin Chachavalpongpun and someone who belongs to the so-called "October Generation", inspired students to call for political changes. These ideas may also have come from Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, former leaders of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party (FFP).

Now that the students have shifted their stance to push for reform of the monarchy to curb the King's power, with the abolition of the Privy Council, the lese majeste law and the Crown Property Bureau.

However, charter changes regarding the monarchy require a referendum. The calls for the highest institution's reform have caused fury among several groups who filed charges against the students.

Politicians are reacting differently. Pheu Thai said outright it did not agree with the students' monarchy demands while the Move Forward Party (MFP) has reached no consensus on the matter. While MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat has thrown his support behind the students' protests, defending freedom of expression, members like Karom Polpornklang have reservations, saying those who breached the law must face legal action.

The current charter prohibits anyone from offending or filing charges against the monarch, who is the head of state.

This is a highly contentious issue that is likely to lead to confrontation given that counter-rally groups have entered the arena.

The situation is complicated. Police are caught between two conflicting sides. They know they may be accused of dereliction of duty if they do not take action against leaders of pro-democracy students who criticise the monarchy in public. But if they arrest those students, there might be a stir, as in the case of lawyer Arnon Nampa who has championed the issue of reform of the monarchy.

Sooner rather than later, the state will have to take action against Mr Arnon, since he has defied a court order that he refrain from "repeating similar offences". In the latest development, the Criminal Court issued a warrant for the lawyer on Sept 3.

Past experiences make us realise that violence can be hard to avoid, especially when a third party makes trouble, and there could be loss of life.

If we are to avoid a confrontation, end the conflict and maintain peace, each party must take a step back. The students should go back to their original demand of charter amendment -- a legitimate one welcomed by the public, while the government should speed up the charter amendment process.

We need a new charter, not minor section-by-section changes. Previously, the government offered a compromise, agreeing to cut the Senate's power in appointing the PM, or removing all the top brass from the Senate, which seems insufficient now.

The military-sponsored charter contains a swath of problematic clauses, such as a system that produces what we know as minnow parties, while several independent agencies that are not independent must be dumped, or the country will plunge into political crisis.

Some have defended the charter, saying that the 2017 version was approved in a referendum. But as we know the process under the NCPO was not really free, but organised under tight military control. Pro-democracy activists who tried to educate the public about the charter's controversial points were hit with legal charges.

It's clear that all the parties, both government and opposition as well as a House panel tasked with studying charter amendment, have reached a consensus that we need a new charter drafting committee. Gen Prayut cannot ignore this. On the contrary, he must kick off the amendment process as soon as he can otherwise conflicts will escalate to the point where bloodshed cannot be avoided.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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