In Thailand, is it compromise failed or failed to compromise?

King Maha Vajiralongkorn made headlines earlier this month as he declared Thailand the "land of compromise". But as the people's constitution is rejected outright and police crackdown on protests, authorities and demonstrators meeting in the middle seems unlikely

Sek Sophal
November 24, 2020
In Thailand, is it compromise failed or failed to compromise?
A protester wearing make-up to play the part of a victim of abuse at school poses for photographers during a 'Bad Student' rally in Bangkok on November 21. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in unprecedented off-the-cuff comments to a British reporter earlier this month, labelled Thailand the “land of compromise”. Far from compromise, however, the Thai domestic political situation could have already hit an impasse. 

Just two weeks after the monarch’s comments, the House of Representatives rejected the “people’s constitution” amendment draft on 18 November. The amendment was proposed by the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, better known as iLaw – a Thai civil society organisation promoting democracy, freedom of expression, civil and political rights and justice in Thailand. Following its outright rejection, iLaw director Jon Ungphakorn expressed his frustration that the House refused to pay attention to the contents of the bill, but were more interested in attacking the organisation

Though it was highly unlikely that the draft would ever pass given the fact that the military-aligned Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) currently controls a majority of seats in the chamber, the PPRP should have shown its sincere political willingness to compromise by giving it due consideration. The House and the PPRP, however, has carelessly ignored it – an action that has seemed unjust to the public and already provoked further anger. 

Pro-democracy protesters, frustrated with the rebuff, returned to the streets again mere hours after the decision, despite the fact police had used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon carrying harmful chemical substances on them just a day earlier. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha later said on 21 November that he was committed to taking all legal action, including lese majeste, against protesters. 

Is the government’s political compromise failing, or did the government simply fail to ever truly compromise? This move by the government to use tough physical and legal measures against the protesters is not an appropriate solution. On the contrary, such a hardline approach may only invite more resistance from protesters, deepening the crisis even further. 

Reaching a real political compromise during the crisis needs sincere political willingness and mutual trust. Mutual trust and confidence, however, can never be built in a climate of fear and intimidation. With this in mind, the first and most important step the Thai government should take is to terminate all forms of legal warfare against protesters. 

Police fire water cannons at pro-democracy protesters during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 16. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), from mid-October to mid-November, cases of legal action taken against protesters increased almost three-fold on the previous month from 65 to 175 cases. More strikingly, perhaps, is that on November 17 police summoned three high school students for their roles in protests at Ratchaprasong intersection on October 15 – an apparent violation of the state of emergency – as authorities targeted the youngest demonstrators yet. 

Modern Thai politics shows that peace and political stability under the climate of fear, anger and hopelessness can never be sustainable. Yet, referring to history and understanding history are two very different things. In his statement addressing the nation on the evening of October 21, Prime Minister Prayut called on all sides to “step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos, where all sides lose control of the situation”. Prayut stressed in the statement that “violence begets more violence” and “we can end in a situation where the entire country suffers”. 

Accepting the amendment draft would help the government show how seriously and sincerely they take all available mechanisms to reach a political compromise

However, the latest move by the government to take tough measures, including violent crackdowns on protesters and Prayut’s commitment to using lese majeste have already contradicted his statement, clearly indicating that he may not understand the historical precedent alluded to in his statement.  

Since the protests started in early 2020, the Thai government has shown no sincere political willingness to reach a compromise acceptable for all parties. The decision by the House to turn down the people’s constitutional amendment draft, as well as Prayut’s commitment to taking all legal action possible, makes it seem like the doors are closing on compromise. 

Taking the people’s constitutional amendment draft into serious consideration does not necessarily mean approving it in its entirety. But giving the amendment draft serious consideration would be politically expedient for the coalition ruling parties for at least three reasons. 

First, the submission of the amendment draft is lawful. According to the current Thai constitution, all citizens are able to submit a petition to propose a constitutional amendment as long as they manage to collect at least 50,000 signatures from supporters. By early October, iLaw had submitted 100,732 signatories to the House for verification and approval. 

Second, accepting the amendment draft would help the government show how seriously and sincerely they take all available mechanisms to reach a political compromise. Third, accepting the amendment draft means creating a sense of open access to parliamentary process and debate for the pro-democracy movement, instead of pushing them towards street protest. But with the Houses’ outright rejection of the “people’s constitution” last week, the notion that Thailand is the “land of compromise” is one that protestors must seriously question. 

On August 10, 2016 after the referendum on Thailand’s new constitution was held, Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN secretary-general and Thai foreign minister, wrote an article How to start the post-poll healing process in the Bangkok Post. In it, he asked: “What is a wise political course of action from this point forward?” Today’s answer is a simple one: The constitution is still, and will likely remain, the centre of Thailand’s political crisis until a compromise can be reached.  

Read more articles