It was a long week, and all Thais felt it.
Unprecedented scenes after the royal motorcade drove past protestors. The declaration of a ‘severe’ state of emergency. The dissolution at Pathumwan. Media censorship. Daily demonstrations happening nationwide.
The situation was becoming untenable. The government could have tried to turn it into an endurance test, yes, but playing cat and mouse with agile demonstrators and closing down train stations day after day was not sustainable.
When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, what happens? Something had to give.
Late on October 21st, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that he will “make the first move to de-escalate the situation.” He promised that, if there was no violence, he would lift the state of emergency.
He also called on the protestors to channel their demands to parliament.
“The only sure way to achieve a sustainable, enduring resolution to the problems is to speak to each other, respect the due process of the law, and then let the will of the people be resolved in parliament,” he declared.
Promising words but for many, it sounds like too little, too late. The state of emergency had by this point become rather toothless. It failed, on an industrial scale, to deter protestors. The government’s attempt to use emergency measures to censor particularly outspoken media outlets had even faltered in the courts. To lift it is less a generous offer than an admission of defeat.
The situation would likely not have escalated to this point if, one month ago, the coalition government and the Senate had voted to begin the process of a constitutional amendment. The road forward would still be long and winding, with no guarantee of success, but at least the establishment could have shown that it was listening.
One did not need a crystal ball to predict when most government MPs and senators voted to delay this vote, that tensions would only continue to rise. As Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak put it succinctly, “suppression without accommodation will beget more dissent. Repression without reform will lead to more radicalization.”
That was hardly what the government wanted to achieve, and the longer it waits to act, the more monumental the task. A hefty portion of the blame for why we find ourselves here is due to the government’s myopia that fateful night in parliament.
But better late than never. We can welcome a good move when we see it. It is a positive sign that, for the first time, the prime minister has shown he is willing to de-escalate tensions.
What should have happened one month earlier must happen now. Parliament should move up the vote on the constitutional amendment, on which there is already somewhat of a broad political consensus, senatorial resistance notwithstanding.
It would be rather difficult to believe that the government cannot do anything to convince the Senate to budge. Even if individual senators are genuinely unpersuaded that these reforms will be beneficial, as many of them argued in September, the events of October should have shown how society has reached such a fever pitch that pursuing reform just for the sake of healing divisions is necessary and in the national interest.
Although the protestors have given Prayut an ultimatum of three days to resign, it is unclear what this would actually accomplish given that the constitution remains unchanged. Without a dissolution of parliament, a new premier must be chosen from the bank of candidates submitted during the 2019 election, and it is unlikely that a truly fresh face will be chosen.
As such, the spotlight should be kept on beginning the process of constitutional reform. This reform needs to include Section 256 (on the amendment itself) and Section 272 (on the Senate.)
That is the least that the government can, and should, do.
What to do with the issue of reform of the royal institution is a more thorny issue. At this point, none of the parties in the government coalition are willing to touch anything related to the monarchy. Yet this is also a core plank of the protest platform, and without any concessions here the situation is unlikely to resolve.
As Democrat MP Panich Vikitsreth (and myself) have argued, this is a topic that refuses to go away and royalist political parties need to be willing to have difficult conversations. Indeed, for royalists, it is probably better for these discussions to happen in the calm confines of parliament rather than on the streets, where emotions take a stronger hold and there is free rein for far fiercer language.
Without moving this debate off the streets and into parliament, tension will still remain and scenes such as clashes between protestors and counter-protestors can re-occur, with unpredictable results.
Prayut made heavy reference to history in his speech, noting that “as we have seen, anyone who leads the government faces the protests of another opposing group. And ultimately, our country becomes ungovernable and chaos descends.”
Calling on his fellow citizens, he said: “We must break that cycle. And we must do it together.”
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Thai history would, at some point in the past week, have been filled with at least some sort of fear: that greater violence could break out, that the tragic scenes of the past could repeat. We all know that the protests of the past twenty years have been, to varying degrees, tumultuous affairs. Thailand has suffered enough.
Breaking this vicious cycle is a message that everyone can get behind. But the government must also be earnest, for pretty words alone will fix nothing.
It is time for the prime minister and his government to take the lead on resolving this crisis. It is time for him to play his part in pushing constitutional change and making parliament an effective vehicle for resolving our political divisions.
It is not too late. But it is also not a moment too early.