Thai 'red shirts' back constitutional change


BANGKOK – Thailand’s “red shirts” turned out in force yesterday to warn the judiciary they would not stand by if a plan to amend the constitution was rejected, a change critics say is aimed at allowing exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to come home.

Current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is Mr Thaksin’s sister. Her administration, including leaders of the red shirt protest group, describe the amendments and related amnesty moves as part of reconciliation plans to end a seven-year crisis.

The constitutional court is examining arguments that the government’s amendments could threaten Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. A final decision is expected in July, which will determine whether the debate can go ahead in August.

The present constitution was brought in under a military government in 2007 after Mr Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006.

According to police estimates, 35,000 red shirts had gathered at Democracy Monument in central Bangkok by late afternoon, many from Thaksin strongholds in the north and northeast, meeting in a festive atmosphere under light police presence.

A provisional court order this month caused the suspension of parliamentary debate on changes to the constitution, temporarily averting a crisis which could have the potential to flare up into another bloody street protest.

“The courts take their orders from the ruling classes. They are an obstacle to true democracy and that is why we are here today – this country still doesn’t have true democracy,” said Somwang Assarasee, a red shirt leader.

“If the court decides the charter cannot be amended, we will not listen. We are prepared to defy the court.”

Rallies by the red shirts, mostly drawn from poorer sections of society, and rival anti-Thaksin yellow shirts have frequently spilled over into violence.

At least 90 people died and almost 2,000 were injured during a protracted red shirt rally in 2010 that was put down by the military.

Mr Thaksin has chosen to live in exile rather than return and serve time in prison after being found guilty of abuse of power.

The red shirts say the latest court order shows complicity between the judiciary and a powerful elite around the royalist establishment and the army.

The courts have made decisions on several occasions in recent years that have caused pro-Thaksin governments to fall. “The injunction against the charter amendment Bill reinforces the red shirts’ view that the judicial odds are stacked against them,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Their street mobilisation this time sends signals they will not stand by and be disenfranchised yet again,” he added.

The red shirts chose June 24th for their latest gathering as it marks the anniversary of a revolution that brought an end to absolute monarchy in 1932.

Mr Thaksin has been accused of republican leanings – taboo in a country where the king is revered by many – although he has always denied this.

To the anger of some red shirts, Ms Yingluck has ignored calls to amend lese-majesty laws that can give lengthy prison sentences to those found guilty of insulting the royal family. – (Reuters)