BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Parliament began a special session Monday that was called to address tensions as pro-democracy protests draw students and other demonstrators into the streets almost daily demanding the prime minister's resignation and other reforms.
As Speaker of the House Chuan Leekpai began the session, only 450 of the total of 731 members of both houses had signed in for the meeting.
The demonstrations by student-led groups in the Bangkok and other cities have three main demands: that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha step down, the constitution be amended to make it more democratic and reforms be made to the monarchy to make it more accountable.
Chuan cautioned that the Parliament session was not to discuss the monarchy’s role.
Public criticism of the monarchy is unprecedented in a country where the royal institution has been considered sacrosanct and royalists have denounced the protesters for raising the issue.
The protesters allege Prayuth, who led a coup in 2014 as the army chief, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters also say the constitution, written and enacted under military rule, is undemocratic.
In his opening speech Monday, Prayuth said he and his government are aware that this is an era of change, pushed by technology.
“But we have to admit that in Thailand, millions, tens of millions, of people do not want to see change though chaos," he said, referring to different points of view over the protesters and their demands. "Everyone has their own beliefs."
He called for Parliament to “creatively find a balance” between competing views.
Opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat of the Pheu Thai party criticized Prayuth for his handling of the crisis. He called on the government to listen to all the protesters' demands, to amend the constitution, and to ease tensions by measures such as releasing arrested students and backing off from threats to censor the media.
He ended his remarks with a call for Prayuth's resignation, charging that he was part of the problem.
The non-voting session of Parliament is expected to last two days.
The protesters have little confidence in the parliamentary path, declaring the government’s efforts insincere.
They noted the points of discussion submitted by Prayuth’s government for debate dealt not with the protesters' concerns but were thinly disguised criticisms of the protests themselves.
They concern instead the risk of the coronavirus spreading at rallies, the alleged interference with a royal motorcade by a small crowd earlier this month, and illegal gatherings and the destruction of images of the royal family. Prayuth in his opening remarks referred to these as the reasons for holding the session.
Instead of confronting lawmakers and counter-protesters on Monday, the pro-democracy protest organizers have called for an afternoon march to the German Embassy, apparently to bring attention to the time King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends in Germany.
Vajiralongkorn has for years spent significant time in Germany, but it only became an issue after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016. Bhumibol was king for seven decades, and though he traveled extensively on state visits in the early years of his reign — including being welcomed with a ticker tape parade in New York City — he only left the country once after the 1960s and that was an overnight stay in neighboring Laos.
Vajiralongkorn’s ability to spend time abroad has been made easier by changes his office sought and received to the current constitution that no longer require him to appoint a regent when away from the kingdom.
Germany’s foreign minister, recently questioned in Parliament by a member of the Green Party, expressed concern over any political activities the king might be conducting on the country’s soil.
The king in recent weeks has been in Thailand with a busy schedule of ceremonial events.
Protesters’ criticism of the royal institution has roiled conservative Thais. Self-proclaimed “defenders of the monarchy” mobilized last week online and in rallies in several cities, in many cases led by local civil servants.
A small group of royalist demonstrators gathered outside the German Embassy on Monday ahead of the anti-government protesters. They submitted a letter for the German ambassador.
The letter accused pro-democracy protest organizers of seeking to poison the minds of students in order to destroy Thai society, and asked the envoy to carefully consider information from all sources to prevent “fake information” from causing damage.
Thailand's Parliament in September was scheduled to vote on six proposed constitutional amendments but instead set up a committee to further consider such proposals, and then recessed.
Constitutional changes require a joint vote of the House and the Senate, but the proposals lack support in the Senate, whose members are not elected and are generally very conservative and hostile to the protesters.