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Thai Cabinet approves Parliament session to debate protests

BANGKOK – Thailand’s Cabinet on Tuesday approved a request to recall Parliament for a special session to deal with the political pressures from ongoing anti-government protests.

The Cabinet at its weekly meeting approved the request, which calls for a non-voting session on Oct. 26-27.

The request for the session came from House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, who said Monday that both government and opposition parties supported it. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had already said earlier that he supports the move.

There is a deadlock between the government and the student-led protesters, who want Prayuth to step down, the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic, and reforms to the monarchy to have it conform to democratic norms.

The protesters charge that Prayuth, an army commander who led a 2014 coup, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters say a constitution written and passed under military rule is undemocratic.

But their more recent demand for checks and balances on the monarchy has deeply angered conservative Thais — and broken a taboo, since the monarchy is considered sacrosanct and tough laws protecting it from insult mean its role is not usually discussed openly. It has also raised the risk of confrontation in a country where calls for political change have a history of being met with military intervention or even violence.

The government has sought to weaken the protesters’ resolve over the past week by arresting their leaders, declaring a state of emergency for Bangkok that makes all rallies illegal, and trying to physically impede their gatherings, including by closing mass transit stations.

However, when riot police backed by water cannons were sent in to break up a rally in Bangkok on Friday, it drew widespread criticism for the use of force and failed to discourage the protesters, who have continued to gather in large numbers every day. Protests have also spread to other provinces.

Tuesday marked the seventh straight day of protests, though they were much smaller in scale than previous rallies, with organizers telling supporters on social media that it was a rest day. Small groups of demonstrators gathered in at least five locations in the Bangkok area.

Two detained top protest leaders were released Tuesday, but were immediately rearrested on other charges, said their lawyer, Noraseth Nanongtoom. He said they would seek their release on bail when they are brought to court on Wednesday.

The two, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, were initially taken into custody during an attempted overnight rally outside the prime minister’s offices on the night of Oct. 14.

Parliament in September made its first attempt at dealing with one of the protesters' demands when it was scheduled to vote on six proposed constitutional amendments. But the vote was canceled at the last minute as Parliament voted instead to set up a committee to further consider such proposals.

Constitutional changes require a joint vote of the House and the Senate, but it was clear that the proposals lacked enough support in the Senate, whose members are not elected and are generally very conservative and hostile to the protesters.

Police announced Monday that they were seeking to impose censorship on media reporting of the protests, citing what they called “distorted information” that could cause unrest and confusion in society.

They said they sought to block access to the online sites of four Thai news organizations and one activist group that broadcast live coverage of the protests. They also proposed a ban on over-the-air digital television coverage of one broadcaster, Voice TV.

Phuchphong Nodthaisong, a senior official from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, announced Tuesday that a court, at the government's behest, had ordered that Voice TV stop broadcasting on all platforms. The company, which was founded by the son of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, has been sympathetic to the protest movement in its coverage.

The government also said it would try to block use of the Telegram messaging app by protest groups, who announced Sunday that they would use it for organizing because they feared they might be blocked on other platforms, such as Facebook. Telegram channels of the protest groups were still accessible on Tuesday.