Thailand’s parliament opened Monday for a special session to discuss the growing youth-led pro-democracy movement, which is demanding Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s resignation and reforms to the ultra-powerful monarchy.
A former military chief who staged the 2014 coup, Prayut has faced increasing pressure in recent weeks by the protesters, who regard his premiership as illegitimate.
Prayut last week recalled parliament – which was in recess – to discuss how to reduce tensions.
“It’s about how to solve the situation of the protesters,” said Tankhun Jittitsara, one of the secretaries of House Speaker Chuan Leekpai.
The protesters want Prayut’s resignation, a rewrite of the military-scripted constitution, and for the government to “stop harassing” political opponents.
But the two-day session will not address these demands, focusing instead on the “illegal” protests, according to a parliament statement issued last week.
Challenging the monarchy
Some protesters have also boldly challenged the monarchy, long a taboo subject in Thailand because of strict royal defamation laws.
Tensions spiked earlier this month when protesters flashed three-finger salutes – a symbol of their movement – at Queen Suthida’s motorcade as it passed by.
After that incident, the premier responded by imposing emergency measures banning gatherings of more than four, while authorities arrested scores of activists.
Prayut revoked it a week later when it failed to discourage tens of thousands turning up in “guerrilla” protests across Bangkok.
The motorcade incident is also up for discussion in parliament.
“The protesters say it was not in the plan for the Queen to pass that way, but the government says she can go anywhere,” Tankhun said.
“No one knows the truth so we’ll talk about that.”
Three activists have been charged under a rarely used law banning “violence against the Queen”, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The demands for royal reform from some protesters include the abolition the royal defamation law, a clear accounting of the palace’s finances, and a call for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to stay out of politics.
Pro-royalist groups have emerged in response to these unprecedented challenges, gathering in counter-rallies to pronounce their love for the king.
On Monday, dozens of supporters in yellow shirts – the royal color – gathered outside Parliament, telling MPs not to reform the monarchy.
“We do not want the monarchy topic to be discussed in parliament,” said Suwit Thongprasert, a prominent royalist activist.
“We are ready to protect the monarchy.”
A student group has called for anti-government protesters to march Monday afternoon to the German Embassy – in apparent defiance to the king who has spent long stints of time in Germany.