Academics, politicians divided over path to unity
The political climate has become unseasonably turbulent following the youth-led street protests calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's resignation, a rewrite of the constitution and reform of the monarchy.
Parliament failed to find a solution to the conflict during a two-day extraordinary session and instead proposed that a panel be set up to forge national reconciliation.
Gen Prayut remains adamant he will not step down and the protesters plan to keep rallying to pressure the government. With the country at an impasse, the Bangkok Post asked a number of key politicians and academics how the conflict can be resolved, or at least eased.
HOUSE DISSOLUTION A NO-GO
Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn, a Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) list-MP, argued that dissolving the House would only postpone the conflict, not resolve it.
He said the protesters' demand for reform of the royal institution is unlikely to be answered and because a snap election would be held under the 2017 charter, the protesters may take to the streets again if the next government also fails to implement their proposals.
"House dissolution won't bring an end to it and could lead to more problems. Work such as budget planning and spending of funds to alleviate hardship induced by the Covid-19 pandemic will be disrupted."
Mr Chaiwut added that dissolving the House would only be a justifiable option when the amendments to the charter are complete and the new election rules are in place.
This is a view shared by Pheu Thai MP and chief opposition whip Sutin Klungsang who insisted that going to the polls under the current system before the charter has been rewritten would be a pointless exercise.
"Charter amendment first, House dissolution later," said Mr Sutin.
Democrat MP for Trang Sathit Wongnongtoey warned that dissolving the House will bring the amendment process to a halt. Six amendment bills sponsored by parties and a version proposed by civil group iLaw would have to be suspended until a new parliament is elected.
"We don't know how long it will take for a new administration to get up and running. We don't know how the charter rewrite process will turn out. We don't know if the street protests will end, because their demands aren't limited to charter amendment. If the House is dissolved, we're heading into the unknown. So it's not a way out," he said.
SHOULD PM RESIGN?
Mr Sutin said Gen Prayut's resignation would deescalate political tension by 80%-90% and installing a successor would pose no problem because Section 272 of the charter allows an outsider to be nominated as the premier.
"The charter has provided a way out. It is not deadlock. Mr Chuan [Leekpai] [parliament president] is a potential candidate. There are others too. It's not hard to find a new one if he [Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha] resigns," Mr Sutin said.
With no one backing down, the Pheu Thai MP said the street protest is likely to intensify and if things get out of hand, there is a possibility the military may stage a coup. And given the current tension, military interference may face strong resistance too, he said.
Korkaew Pikulthong, leader of the red-shirt movement, said that not only should the prime minister resign, those with close affiliations to him such as Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda should also step aside.
The conflict will be eased further if a new prime minister sets a clear timeline for the charter rewrite process, he said, while dismissing the proposed reconciliation committee as a way to buy time.
"He must step down. How can he have let the situation come to this? He has to take responsibility," he said.
Mr Sathit said Gen Prayut's resignation will temporarily ease the political situation. However, the selection of a replacement will proceed under the same constitution, which could reignite the protesters' ire.
Mr Chaiwut, on the other hand, does not believe Gen Prayut's resignation would bring the conflict to an end and may even upset the premier's supporters and lead to more confrontations.
And even if Gen Prayut caves in and steps down, forming a new government will be chaotic and undermined by personal and political interests. There is also no guarantee the protesters will stop because their third demand for reform of the monarchy has yet to be answered, he said.
"The dynamics between the protesters and the government will be like this until the charter rewrite is completed. I think it is the best way out of this.
"Let parliament bear the cross of amending the charter to make way for the setting up of a Constitution Drafting Assembly," he said.
Asked about a possible coup to end the conflict, he said military seizures of power can happen when the conditions are right. It is naive to dismiss a coup as a solution, he said, pointing out that it could provide a way to charter amendment in the case of prolonged deadlock.
DEMANDS SHOULD BE REVIEWED
Mr Sathit, a key figure in the now-defunct People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), whose months-long street protests against the Pheu Thai Party-led administration culminated in the May 2014 coup, said the protesters should redefine their demands to political ones.
He said the charter amendment is an issue that most people agree with and can be given a clear timeline.
The Democrat MP said he believes the protesters will entertain a dialogue now that Gen Prayut has apparently taken a step back by lifting the state of emergency and backing constitutional reform.
However, he conceded the protesters do not have leaders with sufficient experience to negotiate an outcome that takes all of society into consideration.
According to Mr Sathit, the controversial protest activities outside the German embassy and on Silom Road do not bode well for their movement.
In addition, any discussion concerning the monarchy might need to be carefully handled by a reconciliation panel.
"If the protesters agree to talks, it is a good sign. But if they don't and instead push ahead with their demands, it is hard to predict how it will end," he said.
DIALOGUE THE ONLY ANSWER
Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said neither dissolution of the House nor the resignation of the prime minister can resolve the conflict as long as the rules remain the same.
He warned that things could get worse and the prolonged street protests could take their toll on the Covid-19-battered economy.
"The prime minister doesn't need to resign or dissolve the House.
"But we need a forum for all sides to talk and it should be organised by the civil sector.
"This dialogue will pave way for the charter amendment, although, of course, not all charter amendment demands will be met," he said.
Jade Donavanik, a former constitution-drafting assembly adviser, said the demand for reform of the monarchy is a hugely divisive issue and addressing it poses a great challenge than amending the charter.
However, Stitorn Thananithichote, acting director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said amending the charter should remain the focus.
"The reconciliation panel should be set up to help address issues relating to the charter rewrite process, specifically bringing both sides to the table for more than one round of talks.
"Both sides will have even to design how the talk will be held too," he said.