Panich Vikitsreth is a Democrat MP and one of the leaders of a ‘rebel’ faction that joined with the opposition last week to push for constitutional amendment, specifically a clause which allows the unelected military-appointed senate to vote for the prime minister.
The push ultimately failed after several Democrats got cold feet and pulled out leaving the motion short of the number of votes needed to bring onto the parliament floor.
We caught up with him to talk about party politics, personal ambition, and the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic
On the current pandemic situation, Panich said that while Thailand was extremely fortunate to have a robust public health sector and our system of village volunteers, the situation was not over and that he would not be surprised to see a second wave of coronavirus infections.
“You have to look at what is going on in our neighbouring countries and their coronavirus rate is spiking. We have to control our borders and make sure that migrant workers are stopped from coming in otherwise we will see a second wave of infections,” he said.
Panich said that there are positives and negatives that have come from the student protests which have gripped the country for the past several months and that the protests are an extension of the frustration that young people feel about the constitution.
“They are very fresh and very passionate and very new to what is actually happening with the political sphere. They are not too familiar with the past demonstrations, they’re not in the loop of the color-coded protest. This is good because it is fresh and there is no outside political backing, they just want to see a better future for themselves,”
Panich warned however that the students are not “100 per cent aware of the consequences of their protest” and that right now a lot of attention has been given to the students and it is their responsibility to think about what they’re demanding and whether they are fracturing the social structure of the country and whether there is a way to meet in the middle with the other side. Panich said that dialogue remains key in bringing all stakeholders together.
But Panich said the responsibility is also with the government who must show restraint and must understand the grievances of the students and protesters.
“What is critical is how the government will handle the protest, if they handle it with understand, with an open mind, we will probably see some solutions and compromise, he said. “It all depends on how much the government, especially the prime minister, is willing to compromise. If he is not willing to compromise at all, there will be a lot of problems.”
Sympathy towards protesters
Panich said that he sympathized with the protesters but warned that they too must find room for compromise.
“I understand what they are looking for and I think I can accept most of the things that they are looking for. I have a son and a daughter who are the same age as the protesters.”
“I sympathize with the protester’s political demands lots, they have the right goals and the right to stand up for what they believe and see.”
But Panich warned that if the protesters continue to push on ‘sensitive issues’ that the room for negotiations and bringing in other groups becomes less. Right now the protesters should push on the political aspect of their demands because a lot of people are sympathetic to that.
He added that the students, “have done a great job demanding for educational reform and that is very important” but said that we must not also lose what is unique and makes us Thai. There is something to be said for the respect and civility within our culture.
On the issue of the constitutional amendment, Panich said that it has been a point of debate within the Democrat Party for some time.
“Four years ago when the constitution was being drafted and went to referendum, we debated internally that we should not accept the referendum. We voted no on the referendum because of our concern over several issues. First, we did not take part in drafting the constitution. Politicians were not allowed to have any input. We were not allowed to go out in the countryside in rural areas to talk about the constitution or take part in any political activities. The origins of the constitution is rooted in the lack of public participation.”
“Another thing that was very alarming was the propaganda the military used when talking about the constitution [ahead of the referendum] They told the public that this constitution will help crackdown on all corruption and its not true. It didn’t happen. There is no reform. Corruption still exists.”
Timing of last week’s motion
Panich told us that while the Democrats have pushed for constitutional reform since joining the coalition government, the recent protests have accelerated the process and has made the ruling Palang Pracharath come to the table.
That is why those opposed to the constitution and its undemocratic clauses must push for reform now.
“I voted not to join the coalition,” Panich told us. The day the Democrats voted to join the coalition, there were 71 people at the party headquarters.
16 voted not to join.
“I don’t believe that we as Democrats, with us campaigning against this constitution, should suddenly turn around and join the coalition government which came from less than democratic means. The majority of the people wanted to join because they knew that if they are not part of the government they will have a lot of problems working and helping the people in their constituencies.”
Panich said that the decision to join the coalition will likely hurt the party’s future electability and that they will face historic losses at the next election.
“If I was the party leader, I would pull out of the coalition government. Of course, this means that I will never be the party leader.”
Panich said that given what happened with the motion and the compromises the party had made to their own ideals, he would seriously consider his future in the coming months.