Several hundred protesters marched into parliament on Tuesday, November 17, to pressure MPs and senators debating possible constitutional reform in Bangkok. At the end of the afternoon, some tried to force their way closer to the building, protected by concrete blocks, barbed wire and hundreds of police.
The riot police then used cannons mixing water and chemicals and, for the first time, tear gas, the strongest crackdown on pro-democracy protest since the start of the movement. Twenty-three people, mostly suffering from irritant gas disorders, required medical attention, according to Erawan Emergency Medical Center in Bangkok. To protect themselves, some activists took shelter behind giant yellow duck-shaped buoys, which they had planned to use as a boat to reach Parliament from the river.
The protesters – several thousand by early evening according to an estimate by Agence France-Presse – finally managed to approach the main entrance to Parliament. “Stop accusing us of breaking the law, you (the police) are breaking the law by hurting people”one of the student leaders, Parit “Penguin” Chivarak, perched on a truck, told a megaphone. “We are fighting for a better future for our country and for everyone, so don’t shoot us with a water cannon”He added before calling on the crowd to disperse and announcing another protest on Wednesday. “Tomorrow, we will open a new era in our struggles”, he said.
As night fell, a clash also broke out between pro-democracy protesters and ultra-royalist “yellow shirts”, the two groups throwing bottles, stones and waste at each other.
“No more compromises”
“There are no more compromises from now on”, said Anon Nampa, another headliner of the protest, an allusion to Thailand “Land of compromise” highlighted by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in one of his rare reactions to the protest that has shaken his country since the summer. Asked, the palace was not available for comment on the events.
Several opposition parliamentarians came out of the building to deplore the attitude of the police. “The police must not be too violent or threaten” protesters, said Taopipop Limjittrakorn, MP for the pro-reform Move Forward party. The pro-democracy movement is calling for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-cha, who has been in power since the 2014 coup and legitimized by a controversial election last year. He also calls for reforms to limit the powers of the powerful and extremely wealthy monarchy and a revision of the Constitution, adopted under the junta in 2017.
Parliament is meeting to decide which draft constitutional amendments it agrees to consider and is due to vote on it on Wednesday. Several proposals have been submitted to it by part of the opposition and an NGO: they aim in particular to reform the Senate, considered too close to the army, the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court.
One of them also provides that the Prime Minister must come from the ranks of Parliament. But the 250 senators, wholly chosen by the ex-junta, should not readily agree to cut back on their prerogatives and any constitutional change will take a long time anyway, observers say.
The supporters of royalty oppose any reform. “The modification of the Constitution will lead to the abolition of the monarchy”, worried Warong Dechgitvigrom, founder of the royalty group, Thai Pakdee (“Loyal Thais”). The pro-democracy movement ensures it wishes to modernize the monarchy, but in no way wants to abolish it.