Anti-govt protests set to escalate
charter fiasco spurs more anger
Academics, politicians from opposition parties and student leaders believe anti-government demonstrations, particularly next month, will escalate with more supporters expected to take part in the wake of the delay in the charter rewrite vote.
However, some academics said the protesters have committed a misstep by calling for reforms of the monarchy, which has turned neutral people away from them, so weakening their campaign for charter amendments.
On Thursday, MPs and senators approved a proposal to set up a committee to study six charter amendment bills by a vote of 432 to 255, with 28 abstentions.
Effectively, the vote on whether to accept the six bills in the first reading will be postponed by one month.
Originally, the joint sitting of MPs and senators was due to vote on whether to accept the bills on Thursday.
The 31-member committee will comprise MPs from the coalition parties and senators, while opposition politicians refused to join.
Student activists and demonstrators who gathered outside parliament to monitor the vote expressed dissatisfaction with the resolution, pledging to step up their protests.
The proposal to set up the committee was put forward by Paiboon Nititawan, a Palang Pracharath Party MP.
It called for coalition and opposition MPs and senators to study all six bills for one month before reconvening on Nov 1 to vote again on whether the bills are to be accepted at their first reading.
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, told the Bangkok Post that the delay in the vote is expected to trigger a larger turnout than the anti-government rally on Sept 19-20.
In that case, the government will find it harder to control the demonstrators and there is no guarantee authorities will be able to deal with them if they gain more support from the public by using the charter vote delay to attack the government, Mr Stithorn said.
"Initially, the government might have estimated they could deal with the protesters so they decided to postpone the charter amendment process," Mr Stithorn said.
"If the protesters still show they are not powerful enough to challenge the government, the government is likely to find ways to derail the charter rewrite process and vote down all the six bills," he added.
He also pointed out the protester group which calls itself the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), with student activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak as co-leader, has a small following. The group's demands include calls for the monarchy to be reformed.
Mr Stithorn said that even though the group saw a large turnout during the rally on Sept 19-20, the protesters were mostly supporters of the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
It remains to be seen whether another anti-government rally scheduled for Oct 14 will have enough firepower, Mr Stithorn said.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said that charter amendments are linked with anti-government demonstrators campaigning outside parliament.
But the significance of the charter rewrite bid has been overshadowed by the student activists taking aim at the monarchy, prompting the government to use a political tactic to delay the charter rewrite process, Mr Wanwichit said, adding the government expects other groups to marshal their forces to counter the anti-government activists.
"I think the protesters have gone too far," Mr Wanwichit said. "If they had stuck to their original demands -- constitutional amendments, the dissolution of the House and an end to harassment of government critics -- they would have won the support of a wider public.
"But they have taken a step too far and public support is now waning. There are still large numbers of conservative groups and people who want peace."
He went on to say that student movements around the world take a long time to gather strength and grow such as in South Korea and Indonesia.
But development of Thai student movements lack continuity, and in the case of the current student protests, they lack experienced people who act as chaperones to encourage proper content during their rallies, he said.
Jade Donavanik, a legal expert and former adviser to the Constitution Drafting Committee, said rules governing parliamentary meetings allow for a charter amendment study committee to be set up so the government can buy some more time.
However, any efforts to exploit legal technicalities to shoot down the bills will snowball into a serious problem for the government, Mr Jade warned.
He also echoed the opinion that the student-led protests seem to lose strength after focusing mainly on calls for reform of the monarchy rather than charter amendments.
MASSIVE TURNOUT PREDICTED
Chief opposition whip and Pheu Thai Party member of parliament Sutin Klungsang said the demonstrations are expected to escalate as the protesters have felt they were given shoddy treatment after the vote in the first reading of the bills was delayed.
It remains to be seen how many people will take part in the next rally, but the charter rewrite vote delay has already provided protesters with fresh material for further attacks on the government, Mr Sutin said.
The pressure on the government may have eased if the bills had been accepted in the first reading, he said.
UDD chairman Jatuporn Prompan said the vote delay would only add insult to injury as those who are in despair would have no choice but to fight back.
To prevent the situation from escalating, he suggested that a special parliamentary session be opened as soon as possible to vote on whether to accept the bills in the first reading.
''A special session should be opened to solve the problem. Don't forget that the month of October produces strong political feelings,'' Mr Jatuporn said.
He was referring to two major political incidents -- the Oct 14, 1973, popular uprising launched by university students which culminated in the downfall of the junta government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, and the Oct 6, 1976 massacre at Thammasat University.
"I believe the delay in the charter rewrite vote has left people feeling horribly cheated, and as a result this is expected to trigger a massive turnout of protesters," the red-shirt leader said.
Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, agreed, saying that other groups of people may now feel that the problems arising from the constitution would also have an impact on the economy and their livelihoods, and they may also decide to take part in the rally planned for Oct 14.
He added that parliament is now in recess and will return to work on Nov 1, which means there is no forum for all stakeholders to air the grievances, which in turn could lead to protesters taking to the streets.
Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, a leader of the Free People Group (FPG), said the group will carry on and step up their protest following the charter vote delay.
He slammed the delay, saying this shows government MPs and senators lacked sincerity and turned a blind eye to demands from the people.
"The procrastination is deplorable," Mr Tattep said. "We have been fighting for two months because we want a new constitution."
"We did not expect it to turn out this way," he added. "We hoped the meeting voted to accept [the bills] so it would be a first step toward a new constitution."
He went on to say that the current conflict could be solved in a peaceful manner through parliamentary mechanisms.
But now, the group has been left with no options, but to take their fight to the streets, Mr Tattep said.
"We will carry on with the rally in October. Protest leaders will discuss preparations soon. We want to ratchet up as much pressure as possible, and we believe the protests will also expand to other provinces," he said.
"The Oct 14 rally is expected to draw many more people than the Sept 19 rally," Mr Tattep said.
However, Mr Tattep said that the group will stick to the three original demands, as well as their stance against the formation of a national unity government and against any coup.
Mr Parit, co-leader of the UFTD, also said his group will step up their protest on Oct 14 and will continue to push for their demands, including calls for the monarchy to be reformed.