Puea Thai Party

Upcoming FCCT panel to feature Thai political heavyweights - if the junta allows it...

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 24, 2015 The Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand (FCCT) has just announced this upcoming panel discussion in March.

The Future of Politics in Thailand

7pm, Wednesday March 11, 2015

Non-members: 350 Baht entry; Members: Free entry

What kind if future does the military's reform programme promise for Thailand? And will there be space for existing political parties in this new future?

For the first time since the coup, the FCCT is pleased to host a high-level debate, by inviting some of the country's most experienced politicians to the club.

Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council and former deputy leader, Democrat Party

Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party

Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democrat Party

Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

This really looks interesting because this indeed an illustrious high-profile panel. A couple of notes about the panelists:

Alongkorn Polabutr was considered by many as the prospect to reform and revive the ailing "Democrat" Party, as he was the most vocal advocate calling on his fellow party members to stop blaming vote-buying for the streak of election losses. However, in late 2013 - during the anti-Yingluck government protests and weeks away from snap-elections - he was practically demoted from his position as deputy leader of the "Democrat" Party. This likely contributed to his departure from the party last November but also, much to the dismay of many progressive supporters, to his joining the junta-installed and fully-appointed National Reform Council. Being a NRC member alone makes him a high-profile panelist.

Chaturon Chaiseng is regarded as stalwart from the era of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as he filled many positions in his cabinet: Prime Minister's Office Minister (2001–02), Justice Minister (2002), Deputy Prime Minister (2002–05), and Minister of Education (2005–06). After Thaksin's government was toppled by the 2006 military coup, his Thai Rak Thai Party was subsequently disbanded and most of its members, including Chaturon, banned from politics for five years. Chaturon returned to the Yingluck government in mid-2013 as Education Minister, but was putsched again in May 2014. He was one of the few to defy the junta's mass summons and appeared at the FCCT to give a press conference, only for the military to barge in, arrest him on the spot and bring him in front of a military court. He's currently out on bail and returns to the very same spot at the FCCT next month.

Kasit Piromya. It is often said that the diplomatic sensibilities of the former ambassador to Germany and Japan (especially by this author) are more akin to a wrecking ball. Especially during his tenure as Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (2009-11), he seemed to be solely focused on the fugitive, self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin. In any case, if circumstances are right, he can be highly entertaining to watch.

Phongthep Thepkanjana is another ex-cabinet member of Thaksin Shinawatra (Minister of Justice, Minister of Energy, Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office - see a pattern?) and was Chaturon's predecessor as Education Minister in Yingluck's cabinet.

In any case, it should also be interesting to see, considering at least 50 per cent of the panel, if the Thai military will actually allow the event to take place or at least send a representative with in a humvee to "defend" the government's point of view.

Thai government, Election Commission clash over catch-up poll dates

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 12, 2014

The outcome of the February 2 general election in Thailand remains in legal limbo as the Election Commission (EC) has announced the catch-up dates for the constituencies where voting was disrupted by anti-government and anti-election protesters:

The Election Commission is to hold second chance advance voting in 83 constituencies on April 20, followed by general election re-runs at 10,284 polling stations on April 27. (...)

[Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn] explained that the new dates were set for April because the meeting had concluded that voting disruption was likely to escalate during the Senate elections, the first day of candidacy registration for which is scheduled on March 4. Voting for senators is set to begin on March 30.

Regarding the 28 southern constituencies which are still without candidates for the general election, Mr Somchai said the EC wants the caretaker government to issue a royal decree to fix a new election date for the 28 constituencies. The EC will write a formal request to be submitted to officials tomorrow, he added.

"General election re-runs set for April", Bangkok Post, February 11, 2014

Advance voting on January 26 saw widespread blockades in Bangkok and many parts in the South, preventing 2 million people from voting. On election day 10,284 polling stations in 18 provinces (again mostly in the South and in Bangkok) were forced to shut down or didn't open at all due to disruptions by anti-government protesters. Official figures show that over 20.5 million people did cast their ballot, a low turnout of 47.2 per cent.

The Election Commission already announced before the polling stations opened (at least those that could) that there would be no official results on that day, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of issues unresolved. Twenty-eight districts in the South are without any candidates - they were prevented from registering - meaning the mandatory quorum of 95 per cent to form parliament cannot be fulfilled.

Since the election, the EC and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have clashed on what should happen next and when the catch-up polls can be held in the aforementioned districts. In essence, the government argues that the EC has to hold by-elections as soon as possible and has to ensure that it they go smoothly, since that is its duty. On the other hand the EC is reluctant to hold them, citing legal reasons but also safety concerns as many election officials in the South are still being hindered. It should be noted that the Election Commission also displayed some unwillingness to go through with the February 2 elections.

EC officials justified the late catch-up election date with the hope that the political tensions may have calmed down by then, as anti-government protesters are still rallying in central parts of Bangkok, albeit with almost non-existent attendance at their rally stages during the day.

In the interim, elected senators will have completed their term on March 1 and new ones have to be elected on the March 30. That is eight days after the ongoing state of emergency for Bangkok and some surrounding areas is scheduled to be lifted (March 22) - but it would still cover the senate candidate registry on March 4, which is likely to be disrupted by anti-election mobs, as feared by the EC. Should the protests prolong until the scheduled April election dates, the catch-up polls could still be targeted.

As mentioned, 28 districts in the south were not even able to file candidates for the February 2 elections due to blockades in late December and the EC did not extend the registration period. Instead, the commission still proposes that the caretaker government should issue a new royal decree in order to start the entire election process for the affected constituencies. The government, however, has rejected that idea in the past and according to a legal expert of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it wouldn't be legally possible since the royal decree process dictates that after the dissolution of parliament the subsequent election day "must be the same throughout the Kingdom" (see Article 108 of the Constitution). Also, a second royal decree could void the original parliament dissolution decree and thus render the February 2 elections nullified and meaningless.

In a related development, that is exactly what the opposition Democrat Party - which boycotted these elections - is trying to achieve as they have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the whole election since it wasn't held in one day and it would violate Article 68 of the Constitution with the clear intention to get the interim prime minister Yingluck and the ruling Pheu Thai Party banned. But...

Legally, it is difficult to understand this argument. The election could not be held on one day largely because of the actions of a protest movement to which the Democrat party gives thinly-disguised support.

The use of section 68 is even more baffling. This section outlaws any actions that could threaten the existing democratic system, with the King as head of state. The Democrat argument appears to be that in calling the election at a time of turmoil, and against the advice of the Election Commission, the government put the political system in jeopardy.

"The constitution gives a clear and flexible mechanism to re-run the election where it has been obstructed," says lawyer Verapat Pariyawong. "It is ironic that the Democrats are citing section 68, as this really ought to be used to deal with the disruptions of the protesters rather than the actions of the government. There are no legal grounds I can see for annulling the election."

"No grand bargain amid Thailand political crisis", by Jonathan Head, BBC News, February 10, 2014

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to decide whether or not to accept the petition today (Wednesday). UPDATE: The court rejected.

So the February 2 election remains in limbo for at least another two-and-a-half months, while the caretaker government is facing more and more problems, most recently with rice farmers waiting to be paid subsidies and a related anti-corruption investigation and another one for proposed constitutional amendments. Thailand's political crisis continues with no clear answers on where it will go and how it will all end.

Thai govt declares state of emergency as political crisis deepens

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2014 The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government's declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.

With the mass anti-election protesters' campaign to "shutdown" the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday's blast.

The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle - potentially  expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage - details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.

The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the "Center for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO) or "ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ" (ศรส.) in Thai.

Tuesday's announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry's permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.

Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban - practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he's "****ing back!"

The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep - who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests - have "constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.

As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to "come and get us" and still insists that his movement is "peaceful" despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.

In related news, the Election Commission (EC) - still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls - has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.

With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC's ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.

Thailand's NACC ruling: Why it happened and what it means

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 8, 2014 Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) will charge 308 lawmakers, most from interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party, for proposed amendments to the country's constitution adding more uncertainty over its candidates for the upcoming federal election on February 2.

The proposed changes would have changed the Senate into a fully-elected chamber with 200 members, whereas currently only 76 elected and 74 appointed senators make up the 150-strong upper House (Article 111 of the Constitution). The amendments would have also affected passages that bar direct relatives of MPs, political party members and recently retired MPs to run for Senate (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) and would have done away the one-term limit of six years (Article 117). The draft passed both the House and the Senate in all three readings.

In November, the Constitutional Court quashed the draft amendments and declared them unconstitutional, citing a violation of Article 68 of the Constitution stating that a fully-elected senate would “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State,”  and insisting that all these changes would enable "a domination of power" by both chambers. Additionally, the Court noted irregularities (some Pheu Thai MPs were caught using their colleagues' voting ID cards) and discrepancies (the original draft is not the same that was later submitted to parliament, mainly regarding Article 117) in the parliamentary process.

However, the Court stopped short of dissolving the Pheu Thai Party. Instead, the opposition Democrat Party (whose MPs and like-minded appointed senators had originally brought this case to Constitutional Court) asked the NACC to investigate the 383 MPs and senators - including Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the presidents of the House and the Senate - that have proposed and voted in favor of the amendments, seeking their impeachment.

The NACC announced on Tuesday that after a 7:2 decision it will press charges against 308 lawmakers - 293 of them have proposed and voted in favor in all three readings, while 15 did so in one of the readings. The key reason is this discrepancy:

"The NACC [at this point] based its decision on the Constitution Court's ruling which also covers the part about the falsified draft charter amendment, (...) Basically, the 308 MPs and senators were involved in proposing the draft, so they should be aware that the draft was fake and they should be responsible for their actions," [NACC member Vicha Mahakhun] said.

"NACC to charge 308 lawmakers", Bangkok Post, 8 January, 2014

They also decided to dismiss charges against 73 lawmakers, including interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, finding their part in the process to be "insufficient" and protected by Article 130 of the Constitution, which sets out an MPs' or senator's right "in giving statements of fact or opinions or in casting the vote by any member" to be "absolutely privileged".

65 of these lawmakers voted in favor in the third and final reading, while only eight did in the first and/or the second, but none of them actually proposed the amendments. Two other lawmakers have been dropped from the complaints.

Also, in a separate case, the NACC will charge Parliament President Somsak Kiatsuranont and his deputy, Senator Nikom Wiratpanij, for their roles in passing the proposed amendments, accusing both of abusing their power. Both men will hear their charges Friday.

The big questions now are what will happen next and what impact it could have for the upcoming elections on February 2, as many of the 308 lawmakers are running for office? As of now, the legislators are asked to testify to the NACC in the next two weeks and can remain in their positions until then. The NACC will then decide on their cases and whether or not the MPs and senators will face impeachment. In that case, Article 272 of Constitution applies here, which states that if the NACC finds "that the accusation has a prima facie case (evident to be true until proven otherwise)," the accused should "not perform his or her duties until the Senate has passed its resolution".

Amidst the ongoing anti-government and anti-election street protests (with protesters set to up the ante again on January 13 with a city-wide "shutdown" in the capital Bangkok) aimed at suspending electoral democracy indefinitely in favor of an appointed "People's Assembly", fears of a coup of some sort have increased. Comments by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha on a military coup (“Don’t be afraid of things that haven’t yet happened ... But if they happen, don’t be frightened. There are [coup] rumours like this every year.”) have done very little to calm things down.

A "judicial coup" has become a little more likely with the NACC's decision to press charges against hundreds of lawmakers from Pheu Thai,  Thailand's most electorally successful political party, and their fate will be decided in two weeks - just days before election day on February 2.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Thai court quashes changes to Senate, spares Pheu Thai Party

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 20, 2013 Thailand's Constitutional Court has ruled that proposed constitutional amendments to allow a fully elected Senate are unlawful, but stopped short of punishing the ruling Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners. The nine-judge court struck down the government's plans to change the Senate, Thailand's upper House, into a fully elected 200-member chamber - compared to the current 76 elected and 74 appointed members - among other new regularities.

In the verdict reading, which started two hours later than scheduled, the judges voted 5:4 the amendments to be in breach of Article 68 of the Constitution, stating that a fully elected senate would indeed "overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State". Furthermore, the judges took offense at planned changes that would allow direct relatives of MPs to run for Senate, saying that a "spouse-husband" rule of both chambers would "allow a domination of power". Another major reason for the rejection were technical irregularities in the parliamentary process of the drafts, from wrongly submitted documents to different bodies, to MPs caught voting for their absent colleagues with their voter ID cards. That decision was voted 6:3.

The Constitutional Court strongly voiced its opposition to a "dictatorship of the majority" - the ruling Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has a comfortable majority in parliament with its coalition partners - as it sees the system of checks-and-balances to be compromised by a "total control" of parliament by politicians. Nevertheless, the Court stopped short of dissolving the Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners, stating that the actions did not constitute grounds for party dissolution (although the court was unclear as to why).

Initial reactions are divided along party lines. Appointed senator Rosana Tositrakul, one of the plaintiffs who brought the case to the court, was reportedly satisfied that the proposed amendments were brought down, but also wants to see the 312 MPs who voted in favor of the changes and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra "to be held accountable". On the other side, cabinet member and red shirt leader Natthawut Saikua defiantly declared at a red shirt rally at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium that "a new round between democratic forces and extra-constitutional forces has begun." From the government side, interior minister Charupong Ruangsuwan reinforced the party's refusal to accept the verdict (before it has even been delivered), questioning how an all-elected senate could be any worse than a partly appointed one. Prime minister Yingluck herself declined to comment as she walked past reporters with a smile.

While it was spared the worst case scenario, the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the government of Yingluck Shinawatra have suffered another defeat in a short period of time, partly thanks to the same overeager and hamfisted manner they rushed the amnesty bill earlier this month, which was struck down in the Senate after a massive backlash. The government has lost another big legislative playing card for now and may be down, but not entirely out.

Today's verdict also shows again the heavy politicization of the Constitutional Court, hardly hiding its contempt towards elected representatives and the rule of parliament, while the court itself is not without either bias or fault. Citing Article 68, the Court has set a precedent that potentially prohibits any elected government to make any changes to the 2007 Constitution, which was drafted and approved after the military coup of 2006, further prolonging the political polarization Thailand has been suffering since then.

Thai Constitutional Court to decide on govt's fate yet again

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 20, 2013 UPDATE (Nov 20, 14.30h): The Constitutional Court ruled that the charter amendments to be unlawful, but did not disband the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their coalition partners. The judges took offense at the many irregularities during the parliamentary process (such as MPs using their absent colleagues voter ID cards to vote on their behalf) and the changes to Article 115.5 of the Constitution (see below). Full story and analysis here.

Original article

The current political tensions in Thailand could be prolonged this morning (Wednesday) at 11am as the Constitutional Court yet again decides on the constitutionality of proposed amendments brought forward by the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT). A rejection could also yet again threaten PT and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's grip on power - something that anti-government protesters are counting on.

Pheu Thai and the Yingluck government are still licking their wounds after a massive backlash earlier this month - including from their own supporter base - for pushing a wide-reaching amnesty bill through parliament, which was struck down in the Senate last week.

That decision has not appeased the opposition, as street-protests led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thuagsuban of the Democrat Party are still ongoing despite sinking attendances and a failed call for a national strike. Nevertheless, anti-government sentiments - stemming from an emotional antagonism against former prime minister and Yingluck's brother Thaksin - are high and what was initially meant as a anti-amnesty bill protest has gradually shifted into a straight-up campaign to overthrow the government. Currently, they are collecting signatures to impeach 310 MPs who were in favor of the amnesty bill.

Another cause for 'hope' for the anti-government protesters is today's upcoming verdict from the Constitutional Court on the legality of proposed amendments to the 2007 constitution, in particular the makeup of the Senate. In the draft, the new Senate would be increased from 150 to 200 members, all elected into office instead formerly 76 elected and 74 appointed senators (Article 111 of the Constitution). Critics also accuse the government of amending or abolishing passages that prevent direct relatives of MPs, party members and those who served as MPs in the recent past (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) to run for Senate. Furthermore, the one-term limit of six years (Article 117) would also be done away with.

The complaint was sent in by a group of Democrat MPs and like-minded appointed Senators in September. Their reasoning and demands:

[...] ใช้สิทธิตามรัฐธรรมนูญมาตรา 68 ยื่นคำร้องขอให้ศาลรัฐธรรมนูญวินิจฉัย สั่งระงับการแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญ [...] และให้ยุบ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลที่ ส.ส.ในสังกัดร่วมลงชื่อเห็นชอบกับการแก้ไข และสั่งเพิกถอนสิทธิเลือกตั้งหัวหน้าพรรคและกรรมการบริหารของ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลเป็นเวลา 5 ปี

Invoking Article 68 of the Constitution, [they] call on the Constitutional Court to rule and suspend the amendments [...] and dissolve the six-party government coalition whose MPs voted in favor of the amendments and bar their party leaders and executives from running in elections for 5 years.

ประเด็นที่กลุ่มผู้ยื่นคำร้อง [...] นั่นคือ เรื่องผลประโยชน์ขัดกัน คือ ส.ว.แก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญให้ตัวเองลงสมัคร ส.ว.ครั้งหน้าได้ จากเดิมที่เป็น ส.ว.ติดต่อกันเกิน 1 วาระไม่ได้ รวมทั้งมีการแก้ไขให้ "ลูก เมีย สามี" ลงสมัคร ส.ว.ได้ โดยจะโยงให้เห็นว่าอาจส่งผลให้ระบบตรวจสอบถ่วงดุลมีปัญหา รวมทั้งกระบวนการพิจารณาแก้ไขร่างรัฐธรรมนูญที่ไม่ชอบด้วยระเบียบข้อบังคับการประชุม อย่างการกดบัตรแทนกันของสมาชิกรัฐสภา

The reasonings of the complainants [...] are that the Senators are changing the constitution for their own benefit, from running in the next election whereas currently they cannot be in office for more than one term consecutively to allowing children, wives and husbands [and parents of MPs] to run for Senate, also including potential problems with checks and balances and irregularities during the parliamentary debates on the constitutional amendments, such as MPs using voter ID cards of absent colleagues to vote for them.

"คำวินิจฉัย"ศาล รธน." ปัจจัยจบ"ม็อบนกหวีด"?", Matichon Online, November 15, 2013

โดยน.ส.รสนา [โตสิตระกูล] กล่าวว่า เห็นว่า [...] ขัดรัฐธรรมนูญ มาตรา 122 และมาตรา 3 วรรคสอง ที่กำหนดว่า การปฏิบัติหน้าที่ของรัฐสภาต้องเป็นไปตามหลักนิติธรรม [...] ดังนั้น จึงเห็นว่า การแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญดังกล่าว [...] เป็นไปเพื่อให้ทันกับ ส.ว. ที่จะหมดวาระ ในวันที่ 2 มี.ค.2557 ซึ่งจะสามารถลงเลือกตั้งใหม่ได้ทันที

[Appointed Senator] Miss Rosana Tositrakul says "In my opinion [...] [the amendments] violate Article 122 and Article 3.2 of the Constitution that say that the duties of the parliament have to follow the rule of law [...] thus I think these constitutional amendments [...] are for the Senators to run again, since their term ends on March 2, 2014."

"'รสนาง ยื่นศาลรธน. เบรกลางนติๆวระ3 แก้ที่มาส.ว.", Thai Rath Online, September 23, 2013

As with previous petitions, the complainants have cited Article 68, stating that anyone can file a petition to the Constitutional Court in case “a person or political party” tries to “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State under this Constitution“, which they clearly see in the amendments. The problem here is that it is ambivalent whether or not the attorney general is required to submit petitions - the majority of the judges think the attorney general is not necessary here and accepted it directly. Another amendment aims to clarify that point.

It has to be mentioned that - not unlike Pheu Thai and the amnesty bill - the appointed Senators are attacking the proposed changes to their chamber with a certain amount of self-righteousness, was it them who also have partly circumvented the restrictions and played the system for their own benefit, as our writer Kaewmala points out:

Poll after poll shows the majority of Thais supporting a fully elected Senate. The 2007 Constitution prohibits spouses, parents and children of sitting MPs from running for the upper house. This means most Thais don’t see the dangers of husband-and-wife parliament as much as the guardians of Thai democracy do. (And one might also ask if appointed Senators are less politically incestuous than the elected ones).

In any case, in February 2011 as many as 67 of 74 appointed senators resigned one day before the end of their six-year term so that they would qualify for another term. One can say that they strictly followed the letter of the Constitution, which imposes a one-term limit. It is clear that these 67 Senators felt a strong sense of duty to serve (by appointment), although the people seem to want to choose the representatives themselves. Is it a coincidence that those making the biggest noise against a fully elected Senate in the just approved constitutional amendment are mostly appointed senators?

"Constitutional amendment and the guardians of Thai democracy – Part 2", by Kaewmala, Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, October 20, 2013

Furthermore, the government and the red shirts, who were rallying Tuesday evening (and still soul-searching after the amnesty bill debacle), perceive the Constitutional Court to be politicized (also see here), as the preemptive refusal by PT lawmakers to accept the court's verdict clearly shows.

Nevertheless the nine judges will rule not only on the constitutionality of only a part of a greater catalogue of charter amendments, but also on the fate of Yingluck Shinawatra's government. As commented in Matichon, one of at least three likely scenarios can take place at 11am: 1) the amendments are constitutional, 2) the amendments are unconstitutional but the parties are not dissolved, instead the individual 312 MPs who voted in favor of the changes face impeachment, 3) the amendments violate Article 68 of the Constitution (see above), the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their 5 coalition parties face dissolution.

Today's decision by the Constitutional Court is less about the issue about the Senate's makeup, but yet another watershed moment that could defuse the political polarization a little bit or push the tensions beyond the brink.

Some personal thoughts: Thai amnesty bill's wrongs do not make one right

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 4, 2013 It all happened much quicker than anybody thought. What was anticipated to last right into the weekend was done in a day and a night, and we all are still nurturing a massive political hangover.

Parliament rushed the Amnesty Bill through the second and third readings with 310 votes and an absent opposition, and now awaits confirmation in the Senate - all that amidst a flood of outcry and criticism from all sides for very different reasons. As this political crisis in Thailand has dragged on for the best part of a decade now, the political landscape has become deeply polarized.

However, the arguments of both sides show that no matter how many wrongs you make, hardly any of them make it a right.

While the ruling Pheu Thai Party initially tabled the most agreeable version of the Amnesty Bill by their MP Worachai Hema, it then did an audacious bait-and-switch as it retroactively added in the more controversial sections that ultimately transforms it into a blanket amnesty, which would cover not only political protesters, but also their leaders and other people that have been convicted .

The hubris the party showed - all that in absence of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - with this move is reminiscent of the man that is most likely to profit from it: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra lives in self-imposed exile since 2008, following a conviction and 2-year jail sentence for abuse of power handed down by a post-coup court that was arguably biased against him. Ever since then, he has been more than a shadow if the governments of his party's incarnations, including the current one of his sister Yingluck. While it is understandable that he is longing to return to Thailand, it can be argued that he is more effective abroad than at home, given the mountain of old and new problems he would have to face on his return.

With the blanket amnesty also absolving those responsible for the bloody crackdown on the 2010 anti-government protests, the party is betraying its loyal supporter base. The red shirts are split on this matter, as seen when 4 red shirt leaders abstained (Natthawut Saikau and Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, plus "Seh Daeng"'s daughter Khattiya and MP Worachai Hema, the bill's original sponsor), while all others followed the party line - something red shirt leader and MP Korkaew Pikulthong used to try to explain his political schizophrenia.

There have been protests against the bill before by a red shirt splinter group and they will do so again on November 10, while on the same day other red shirts will rally in favor of the bill. The red shirt movement is (once again) at a junction and has to reflect on what it actually stands for: as a force for genuine political reform - even if it means breaking away from Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party - or forever be branded as Thaksin's mob. The crucial question is, whether the majority of the base and the leaders are capable of the former?

While conservative anti-government protesters (mainly consisting of supporters of the opposition Democrat Party) rally against the impunity that Thaksin could get away with, it is also a sign of frustration from the opposition in and outside parliament in their failed attempt to get rid what they see as "Thaksinism" from Thai politics - even if it comes at the cost of democracy.

One of their main arguments is endorsing the 2006 military coup as "patriotic" to protect the country from the "evil" Thaksin and his politics. Their vehement defense of the coup and their denial of all its consequences displays the self-righteousness in their crusade for the "good people" and their lack of self-reflection.

The decision now lies with the Senate, but it can also be expected to be challenged at the Constitutional Court - two bodies that have played their own part in the political mess that Thailand is today. It is exactly the mindset of self-serving self-righteousness and a dangerous black-and-white thinking among those political institutions and groups that are not meant to be politicized but are politicized ever since the military coup and the meddling of non-parliamentary groups.

That is also why the culture of impunity of the darkest days in Thai history (1973197619922006 etc.) still prevails and will repeat over and over again until we start to realize that it needs more than just a simple electoral majority, more than an amnesty, more than the crucifiction of a political enemy and more than just the reversal to times that once were or never were at all - all those would be the first things to make things right.

Thailand: Tensions rise ahead of amnesty bill showdown, protests (UPDATE)

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 31, 2013 UPDATE (November 1, 8.00am): After an 18-hour marathon session ending at 4.20 am, parliament punched the Amnesty Bill through the second and third reading with 310 votes, while 4 MPs abstained: the red shirt leaders Natthawut Saikaur and Weng Tojirakarn, original bill sponsor Worachai Hema and Khattiya Sawasdipol, and the daughter of Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol aka "Seh Daeng", the rogue general who supported the red shirt movement and was killed while giving an interview with The New York Times at the beginning of the 2010 crackdown. The opposition Democrat Party staged a walkout. The bill is now in the Senate for approval.

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The political atmosphere in Thailand is seeing rising tensions again after a period of relative calm and could see a major showdown this morning (Thursday) as the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) is submitting the controversial and rewritten Amnesty Bill for deliberation in parliament while the opposition is preparing to take to the streets and is trying to mobilize protests against it.

The so-called Amnesty Bill was originally intended to benefit only those involved in political protests since 2006, but not their leaders or any officials involved in violent clashes. However, a 35-member parliamentary vetting committee (dominated by Pheu Thai MPs) retroactively amended the bill, extending it to "persons accused of wrongdoing by a group of people or an organisation set up after the military coup of September 19, 2006."

This would include all officials and military officers responsible for the deadly crackdown on the 2010 anti-government red shirts protests as well as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 after was convicted for abuse of power and sentenced to two years in jail.

The Pheu Thai Party has faced a backlash over the amendment, not only from the opposition Democrat Party but also from within their own ranks as the red shirt supporter base are objecting the possibility that those responsible for the victims of the 2010 crackdown could walk away scot-free. A red shirt splinter group and families of the victims held separate rallies against the bill over the past week.

Parliament announced on Tuesday that the deliberation for the second reading will begin this morning, before the third and final reading will take place on November 2 - technical and procedural hurdles notwithstanding. What also emerged is that the party ordered all its MPs to attend and also to vote in favor of the bill. All signs clearly show that the Pheu Thai Party is really now pushing to pass it through parliament, where it has a comfortable majority coalition.

On the other political side, the opposition Democrat Party are also now preparing their counter-measures, focussing outside of parliament:

The Democrat Party, which is planning to hold a mass rally at Samsen train station in Bangkok this evening to voice opposition to the blanket amnesty bill, should abide by the law, Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog said yesterday. (...)

Four deputy Democrat Party leaders - Korn Chatikavanij, Thaworn Senneam, Issara Somchai, Siriwan Prassachaksattru , and party executive Satit Wongnongtaey - stepped down from their positions as board members. Though the five will continue as MPs, they say their reason for quitting the board was to pre-empt any moves to dissolve the part based on their role in the protest.

"Protesting Democrats told not to break law", The Nation, October 31, 2013

While the planned rally and fierce attitude on display by the Democrat Party has limited impact on what is going inside parliament, it will come down to how many people it can muster. In recent months they have regularly staged rallies (with conflicting reports on attendance numbers) while other anti-government groups, such as the "People's Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism" (PEFOT, what a moutful!) or the short-lived white masks could gather only a couple of hundreds.

However, given the focus on a feared Thaksin whitewash and return to Thailand, the Democrat Party is in a rare situation where it could assemble a broader anti-Thaksin coalition (including whatever is left of the ultra-nationalist yellow shirts). Even though it is unlikely that they will literally rally for days, a 'strong' first showing could give at least some temporary momentum - Democrats have optimistically estimated it can rally 10,000, though half that would be considered a success.

The big questions are at what point Pheu Thai will pull back (if at all) and how the red shirts' grassroots base will react to the Amnesty Bill? Whatever happens in the next few days, this is the result of a certain hubris in the Pheu Thai Party on this issue. In the past, the ruling party would dip its toe to test the political waters with each new piece of critical legislation (as seen with the constitutional amendments). Now it seems that they are just short of dive bombing into hot water.

The danger for the ruling party does not come so much from the opposition, in or outside the parliament, but rather from within, especially the red shirts, even though the mainstream United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship - despite its declaration to abstain a few MPs - is likely to follow the party line and not create a mutiny should the bill pass. Nevertheless, the party should not underestimate the potential for dissent and resentment among its supporters for what is essentially the betrayal of a key campaign promise.

Thailand: Reconciliation games continue as amnesty bill goes to parliament

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 26, 2013 When Thailand's parliament reconvenes next week to continue the political season one of the most discussed and possibly the most controversial issue will be the passing of the so-called amnesty or reconciliation bill. Advertised as a means to overcome the ongoing political division by giving far-reaching amnesty to those convicted for taking part in the countless political protests - of both yellow and red shirts - since the military coup of 2006, opponents are accusing the government of white-washing the activities of the red shirt protesters and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Depending on which of the various drafts you read, the bill could issue an even more far-reaching amnesty that also includes the junta behind the military coup, the military and civilian authorities responsible for the violent crackdown of the 2010 anti-government red shirt protests (including then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thuagsuban), the various protest leaders, erasing the post-coup judiciary (a junta-appointed court which has dissolved deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party and banned 111 politicians from office in 2007) and - according to one draft - even absolve Thaksin himself from a 2008 court sentence for abuse of power in a land purchasing case.

The authors of the drafts nearly all come from the governing Pheu Thai Party (PT). Red shirt leader and current deputy commercial minister Natthawut Saikua and coup-leader and now-opposition politician Sonthi Boonyaratglin may come from opposite ends of the political devide, but have presented similar amnesty drafts, with the main difference that "those who commit terrorist acts and acts causing death" are excluded in Natthawut's bill proposal. The former deputy prime minister and now newly demoted named labor minister Chalerm Yubamrung also throws in a draft of his own in a typically eager attempt to leave a personal mark on this issue, in which almost everybody - including Abhisit and Thaksin - are absolved. None of the bills include those imprisoned under the lèse majesté law.

Last week, another proposal for a reconciliation bill was introduced by a group that has been often neglected in the political infighting but was arguably most affected in the political crisis:

Relatives of those killed in the April-May 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters are to submit a "Worachai-plus" amnesty bill as parliament prepares to consider six other amnesty bills next month. (...)

"People from all colours will be absolved of any offence they committed or had committed against against them, except for core leaders," Ms. Payao [Akkahad, the mother of 25-year-old Kamolkade Akkahad, a medical volunteer who was killed inside Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19, 2010] said of the victims' relatives' version of the bill.

The relatives will submit their five-page bill to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tomorrow, and to the parliament speaker on July 24, she said.

This bill, [Punsak Srithep, father of the 17-year-old Samapun Srithep, who was killed on May 15, 2010, on Ratchaprarop Road,] said, would allow judicial lawsuits to be pressed against persons or groups that killed people and/or damaged private property. The relatives' bill also does not prevent private entities whose properties were damaged in the unrest from launching civil suits against vandals or arsonists, he said.

"2010 victims' relatives push amnesty bill", Bangkok Post, July 15, 2013

The draft, coined by local media as the "People's Bill", has found in opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva an unlikely proponent. While he lauds it to be "the first amnesty bill that had been proposed with a reasonable and reconciliatory tone," parts of the proposal directly target him and his administration's role in the violent crackdown on the red shirt protesters in 2010 (both he and his former deputy Suthep are facing murder charges by the DSI on at least one count, if not even more). It comes as no surprise that his party supporters and other ultra-conservatives have criticized Abhisit for voicing his support, many questioning whether or not he actually read the entire thing. The opposition has not yet brought up a proposal on their own.

Meanwhile, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the mainstream red shirt umbrella organization, has voiced skepticism about the "People's Bill":

Prominent Pheu Thai politicians and Redshirts leaders, such as Mr. Weng Tojirakarn, Mr. Sombat Boon-ngarmanong, and Ms. Suda Rangupan, have accused Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak of trying to slow down the process to pass amnesty bill by picking a fight with the powerful military.

According to those opposed to the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill, the effort to free detained Redshirts protesters should be a priority over the need to prosecute the security forces. They expressed their fear that the military would never allow Ms. Yingluck′s government to pass such a bill, ruining the chance of any little gain there might be altogether, and might even launch a military coup in retaliation.

Some Redshirts also openly questioned the motives of Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak, indirectly accusing them of being collaborators with the rival Democrat Party which, strangely enough, had expressed its support for the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill.

"Fragmentation Among Redshirts Highlighted By Amnesty Debate", Khaosod Online, July 24, 2013

Instead, the UDD and the Pheu Thai Party are reportedly backing the draft by PT MP Worachai Hema, putting it top of the agenda for deliberation in parliament (even before the 2014 Budget Bill!) and ditching all other proposals - a move some observers say is to avoid uproar from the UDD, despite reports of dissatisfaction among certain groups within the fragmented movement. Under Worachai's bill, all political protestors will be granted amnesty - regardless of their political allegiance - while excluding the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdowns.

August rings in a new political season that could get very heated very quickly: on top of the 2014 Budget Bill, the 2.2 trillion Baht (US$ 730bn) loan for infrastructure investments and proposed constitutional amendments, the amnesty bill will spark months of legislative tugs of war and wars of words (and potentially worse antics by the opposition outside and inside parliament like last year) - once again revealing how big Thailand's political divisions really are and that even a far-reaching amnesty will not be enough to close the gap.