Peaceful end to protest a win in itself
Much to the relief of many, the anti-dictatorship protest at Sanam Luang yesterday ended peacefully and quickly. This was thanks to the protesters, who gathered under the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration's (UFTD) banner, the government and especially the police, who have shown extraordinary patience in avoiding hostile confrontations -- even though some of the remarks made on stage by the speakers were provocative.
This should serve as a lesson for future protests, as it shows that violence can be avoided if both the protest leaders and police exercise restraint and are determined to avoid a clash.
UFTD leaders called off the protest yesterday morning after they submitted a 10-point demand to Lt Gen Pakkapong Pongpetra, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, following a brief negotiation between him and Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul, who first grabbed public attention for reading out the protesters' manifesto on Aug 10 during a protest at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus.
Ms Panusaya should be commended for not trying to break the police blockade to submit the document to the Privy Council headquarters, located near the Grand Palace. Instead, she handed it to Lt Gen Pakkapong in the middle of the road, next to Sanam Luang.
The peaceful end to the protest can be viewed as a win-win situation for both the protesters and the government, although it may seem the protesters failed to achieve anything solid or win any concessions from the government.
As of yesterday morning, the government had yet to respond to the students' three initial demands, which were first announced by another key protest leader, Parit Chiwarak. Their demands are the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; the writing of a new constitution by a wholly-elected Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA), and reform of the monarchy.
Gen Prayut will undoubtedly reject demands for his resignation -- the same way he brushed repeated calls by opposition MPs for him to quit during a debate on next year's budget last week -- claiming he still has many unfinished jobs to tend to, such as the controlling Covid-19 pandemic, reviving the devastated tourism sector and rebooting the economy.
As for the charter amendment, the government is likely to say that it is the responsibility of MPs and senators, which are still at odds about forming the right CDA for the task.
It is highly likely the Senate will object to a comprehensive re-write in favour of a section-by-section amendment.
This process may take more than two years, as it requires the staging of two referendums -- the first is to get the people's consent to amend the charter as stipulated by Section 256 of the supreme law, and the second to approve the new draft.
The Election Commission has estimated the total cost of writing a new chapter -- including the two referendums and a general election -- would be around 15 billion baht. Not a small amount to spend taxpayers' money on, especially considering there is no guarantee that corrupt MPs won't be re-elected.
As for their third demand -- reform of the monarchy -- is easier said than done because of the fierce opposition from hardcore royalists. Even if it is agreed upon by all parties concerned, it could only be done by amending Article 2 of the constitution.
Viewed from this perspective, the protesters appear to be going home empty-handed. That said, they can claim credit for opening the lid on the subject of monarchy, which has been a taboo for most Thais for decades.
More Thais, I believe, will be emboldened to discuss the issue more openly, if not publicly.
Many royalists found Mr Parit and Ms Panusaya provocative when they talked about the sensitive subject on stage.
That said, after reading the students' 10-point manifesto carefully with an open mind, I personally found several of them to be reasonable.
Social media has given many people access to materials about the monarchy which had not been previously available through Thailand's mainstream media outlets.
This is the reason why some Thais who used to revere the high institution have decided to switch camps.
Several protest leaders are at risk of facing a backlash after this week's protests, but it seems as if they are ready to face the consequences. Frankly, I admire their iron will, honesty and aspirations for true democracy.
Putting them behind bars won't improve the political situation, nor will it bridge the generational gap in Thai society. In fact, it will do just the opposite.
For the good of this country and its people, the old establishment better heed the aspirations of our youth.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.