Parliament to host a ‘safe zone’ forum for students’ demands on September 22

A ‘dialogue’ is to be held in a Thai parliamentary setting on September 22. A parliamentary committee is responding to the demands from student and opposition protesters, who are calling for reform of the government, a new constitution, and even reform of the Thai Monarchy – the latter previously considered a ‘no go’ zone. The committee describes the upcoming forum as an intimidation-free “safe zone” for the students to voice their opinions and share them directly with the country’s MPs

Padipat Suntiphada, chairman of the House Committee on Political Development, Mass Communications and Public Participation, says the panel invited students to share their demands on constitutional amendment. Padipat is a Kao Klai (Move Forward) MP from Phitsanulok.

The students have already submitted to the panel their so-called “10-point manifesto” for reform of Thailand’s monarchy. The reforms address the scrapping the controversial lese-majeste law, defunding of the royal family and stop the ‘palace’ from expressing political opinions.

This would be the first time that reform of Thailand’s Head of State was raised as a topic in the Thai Parliament. The significance of the moment, previously a taboo topic for Thais, follows the broaching of the topic during protests in Bangkok early last month. A protest on August 10, was the first time the topic had been raised in a broad public forum and drew both support, and condemnation, from social media. A week later, a rally attracted up to 10,000 people at the Democracy Monument, and was the largest protest ever staged in Thailand since the coup back in 2014.

The proposed parliamentary forum would be only 3 days after this weekend’s next proposed anti-government rally. The demonstration, expected to draw up to 50,000 people, was meant to be held at the Thammasat University Tha Prachan campus, although university officials, at this stage, have said the rally cannot take place on the grounds of the institution. Notably, given some of the topics up for discussion at the rally, the Tha Prachan campus is just steps away from the Grand Palace.

The students are adamant on holding the rally on the Tha Prachan campus despite being refused permission from the university’s administration. Their plan is to camp overnight at the campus before marching to Government House the next day, a move university officials say would drag the university into the student’s political quagmire. The university, and the Tha Prachan campus, have an emotional connection with political uprisings in the past.

The Thammasat University massacre was a violent crackdown by Thai police and lynching by right-wing paramilitaries and bystanders against leftist protesters who had occupied Bangkok’s Thammasat University and the adjacent Sanam Luang, on 6 October 1976. Prior to the massacre, thousands of students, workers and other leftists had been holding ongoing demonstrations against the return of former dictator Thanom Kittikachorn to Thailand since mid-September. Official reports state that 46 were killed and 167 were wounded, while unofficial reports state that more than 100 demonstrators were killed.

After the August rallies, Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha warned protesters to “steer clear of criticising the monarchy” saying they crossed the line when their “10-point reform plan” was read out at a rally on August 10. Since then, police have charged more than a dozen activists with offences ranging from sedition to incitement of violence, but released them on bail as the government struggles with how to respond to the rallies.

The parliamentary panel is seen as an olive branch for the students and activists to participate in discussions in an ‘inclusive’ parliamentary setting. Critics say the government are just “buying time’ and that the forum is merely a staged PR stunt. But many MPs have expressed the need for the student’s demands to be broached in a parliamentary setting.

Around 40 representatives and activists from anti-establishment groups like the Free Youth movement and United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, and pro-establishment groups like Vocational Students Protecting the Nation, have been invited to participate in the forum.

“If the forum receives good feedback, Parliament has to respond. If society lifts the ceiling [of discussion], how can MPs be afraid to talk? Personally, I think the safe zone to debate the 10-point manifesto is in Parliament. But I’m not sure when is the right time or whether we have to wait for the launch of a constitution drafting assembly to discuss the monarchy while writing a new draft charter.”

SOURCE: Nation Thailand

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