BANGKOK — Thailand’s legislative branch will not be able to pass laws, amend legislations, or scrutinize the merits of government actions for 14 days, following an unprecedented decision to suspend the Parliament amid coronavirus anxiety.
The suspension was agreed by representatives from both opposition and coalition parties in a Monday meeting chaired by House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, lawmakers who attended the session said. The move followed a coronavirus scare at the Parliament when it emerged that a gambler infected with COVID-19 was present at a House committee meeting on online gambling in December.
Move Forward Party deputy leader Picharn Chaowapatanawong said Tuesday that the MPs in his party regretted the decision but had no choice but to follow the will of fellow parliamentarians.
“We definitely have to accept the decision,” Picharn said.
Due to the shutdown, deliberations on legislations and holding a censure debate will not be possible – including the ongoing bid to amend the 2016 Constitution, a key demand put forth by the waves of pro-democracy protests. Another MP lamented that in just one subcommittee, there is already a backlog of hundreds of cases he has to review, even on normal working days.
Picharn said his party already suggested reducing the number of MPs in meetings, more stringent health measures, and even regulation amendment that would allow legally binding online parliamentary sessions, but a majority of political parties at yesterday’s meeting disagreed.
In fact, Picharn said, more than half of political parties present at the meeting want not just 14 days of shutdown, but 28, citing fears of possible coronavirus infection.
“It was Chuan who decided on the 14-day period. He said, let’s see after 14 days first,” the Move Forward lawmaker said. “This is having an impact on the deliberation on a charter amendment, which was slated for the middle of this month.”
But Paiboon Nititawan, deputy leader of ruling Phalang Pracharath Party, insisted that the suspension of parliamentary activities is based on science of pandemic control, not politics.
“Most thought it should be deferred,” Paiboon said by phone. This is not a matter of legislators, and who would know about this better than doctors?”
The pro-government lawmaker also said it was the Disease Control Department who first came up with a suggestion of a 28-day shutdown, for the sake of safety.
“We were told by the department that the outbreak is widespread,” Paiboon added. “We shall reassess the situation after two weeks but we must follow the doctor’s recommendations.”
When asked about how the country will be run without a Parliament, Paiboon said his party will propose that special House sessions be introduced to make up for lost time of legislative debates, perhaps in March. Paiboon also said although the party currently halts all its physical meetings, its members are in touch with each other through Line chat application.
Democrat Party MP Sukit Attopakorn, who is also advisor to the House Speaker, defended the suspension.
“I admit that the suspended meetings will affect many works,” he said. “But the Parliament will compensate through future meetings.”
Even Pheu Thai, one of the two main opposition parties, did not oppose the decision reached yesterday. Party deputy leader Pichai Naripthaphan said Tuesday that the lawmakers should not risk going ahead with physical meetings when the outbreak remains out of control.
“Our party doesn’t know how much the pandemic will spread. There are many staff in Parliament and the chance of infection is there. There are also MPs from provinces such as Samut Sakhon,” Pichai said, referring to the province hit the hardest by the coronavirus.
“We may be able to contain it in a month or two but we should not take the risk now,” Pichai added.
Apart from Move Forward, Seri Ruam Thai Party is the only other opposition group that voted against the shutdown in Monday’s meeting. Party MP Tanaporn Somthongdaeng said on the phone that she understands the concerns, however.
“Charter amendment will be delayed, but on the other hand there is a certain necessity to contain the outbreak,” Tanaporn said Tuesday.
But Move Forward Party MP Rangsiman Rome remains unconvinced. Speaking on the phone Tuesday, Rome said a lack of parliamentary review will exempt the executive branch from any debates and scrutiny in the next two weeks, at least.
“I don’t want PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to be afraid of the Parliament,” he said. “If he doesn’t know how to solve problems, we have some solutions for him.”