PAD shelves mass rally over constitution

The People's Alliance for Democracy yesterday backed away from its threat to stage a major Bangkok rally against the charter rewrite in a move hailed by the government as a breakthrough in easing political tensions.

While the PAD faithful rallied and partied at Lumpini Park, the leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy held a meeting and decided to hold off plans for a major street protest - with conditions. (Photos by Phrakrit Juntawong)

However, after a meeting of about 2,000 rowdy PAD supporters at Lumpini Park Hall, the group's leaders said shelving the mass rally was dependent on two conditions. First, the constitution rewrite should not reduce the power of the King or change the structure of the monarchy, and second, it should not open the way for an amnesty for fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his "cronies".

PAD spokesman Panthep Phuaphongphan said the mass rally may be put on the table again if "the conditions are ripe enough for a big political change among Thai people".

"Under these conditions ... the PAD will hold a major rally immediately," said Mr Panthep.

Samart Kaewmeechai, chairman of the joint committee vetting the draft charter amendments, hailed the PAD decision, saying it would help create "a good political atmosphere".

He also played down the yellow shirts' fears over the changing of the sections related to the monarchy.

"The committee has agreed that the monarchy-related section will remain intact. So, the PAD should not worry about that," he said.

Mr Samart said the matter of an amnesty for Thaksin should rest with the government-appointed reconciliation committee, chaired by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin.

A constitutional amendment could not grant an amnesty for any individuals, he added.

Hard-core yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul told the crowd he would continue fighting Thaksin as he had done for eight years. He said he did not believe the government's promise not to touch on the issue of the monarchy in the charter rewrite.

The yellow shirt gathering was the first staged under the Yingluck government and was seen as a bellwether of public support for the anti-Thaksin group. Survey forms were distributed during the event. A quick tally found one-third of those who attended said it was not the time for the PAD to stage a rally without the support of other parties, including the military.

Mr Panthep rejected a suggestion the yellow shirts' support had dwindled, prompting them to put the rally on hold.

He said they would start a nationwide campaign as soon as possible about the charter rewrite and the direction parliament has taken on the issue.

Nanta, a 59-year-old teacher from Chon Buri, welcomed the PAD's resolution, saying the issue was far too critical for the group to handle alone and the public needed to be better educated about the issues.

Surichai Wungaeo, director of Chulalongkorn University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said the PAD's tempered approach could be a harbinger of a new maturity in public participatory politics.

He said the government should also take the opportunity to demonstrate to the public that it can be trusted.

"Thai politics does not allow trust to take up more space than paranoia and mistrust. So, it's the government's duty to expand participatory politics so that people can join each other."

He said to do so the government should focus on "opportunities for the public, rather than opportunists".

The parliament voted 341-181 on Feb 23 to consider the three charter amendment drafts.

They seek to change Section 291 of the charter, kicking off the first step of the rewrite, with the creation of a constitution drafting assembly to work out charter amendments.

Pipob Thongchai, another yellow shirt leader, said the PAD's cautious approach could lead to real change as the group was serious about building up networks and educating people about political regimes.

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