BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Parliament began a special session Monday that was called to address political tensions amid near daily pro-democracy protests demanding the prime minister's resignation, constitutional changes and reforms to the monarchy.
Even as lawmakers debated, the student-led rallies were set to continue with an evening march through central Bangkok to the German Embassy, apparently to bring attention to the time King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends in Germany.
The scrutiny and public criticism of the monarchy that has been displayed by some of the protesters is unprecedented in a country where the royal institution has been considered sacrosanct. It has also led royalists to stage their own counter rallies and to denounce the protesters for raising the issue, increasing the risk of confrontation.
Speaker of the House Chuan Leekpai cautioned at the special Parliament session that it was not to discuss the monarchy’s role.
In his opening speech, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha 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 through 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.
Prayuth, who led a coup in 2014 as the army chief, is disliked by the protesters, as they say he 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.
But instead of confronting lawmakers and counter-protesters at Parliament, the student-led protesters decided to march to the German Embassy.
As they gathered in the late afternoon, police served notice that if they did not disperse, they would be violating the law on illegal assembly by not getting permission beforehand to march. The crowd failed to disperse, and as dusk fell, began marching toward the embassy, chanting, singing and cheering. It was hard to estimate the size of the moving crowd, but an Associated Press journalist at the scene estimated it to be between 5,000 and 10,000.
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 left the country only 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.
The German government has spoken out on the issue, initially when Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, responding to a question 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.
On Monday in Berlin, Maas spoke again, saying the government was following developments in Thailand and was aware of the demonstrations and “people taking to the streets for their rights.” He added that he also was watching the king's activities in Germany.
"We have been examining this not only in recent weeks, but we are continuing to examine it in the long term, and if there are things we feel to be unlawful, then that will have immediate consequences,” Maas said.
The king in recent weeks has been in Thailand with a busy schedule of ceremonial events.
A small group of royalist demonstrators gathered outside the German Embassy earlier 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.
A small number of police officers were stationed at the embassy for their demonstration, but several busloads arrived later, with helmets and riot shields, to provide security ahead of the arrival of pro-democracy protesters, whose numbers were expected to be much greater. They also set up small barriers and barbed wire in front of the gate.
In the special session of Parliament, 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 that 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.
This story has been edited to correct the prime minister as saying ”... people do not want to see change through chaos," instead of ”... change though chaos."