23 May 2024

Some amendments to Thailand’s controversial lèse majesté law may be needed, but there is no need to repeal it, said a legal scholar amid growing calls, both at home and abroad, to revise some parts of the law which seek to punish those deemed to have defamed or insulted senior members of the royal family.

In an exclusive interview with Thai PBS World broadcast on Friday, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Jade Donavanik, of the Faculty of Law at the College of Asian Scholars, said there are two main problems with the current law and its implementation, namely the harsh penalties and the fact that anyone can file a lèse majesté complaint against any other member of the public, with the police obligated to pursue the case.

“Imprisonment for long periods for each offence, when many of the offenders might be involved in a series of actions, could be a problem,” said Dr. Jade, who was also an advisor to the previous Constitution Drafting Committee.

The penalties range from 3 to 15 years in prison, but this is per count, which means that anyone can be sentenced to decades in prison if they repeat the offence, for example, by making several online posts deemed to be defamatory or insulting to the King, Queen, the Heir Apparent, or Regent, the only four figures the law protects.

Such is the case for Anchan Preelert, a 65-year-old retired civil servant, who was sentenced to 87 years in prison for posting 29 video clips on Facebook and YouTube, deemed to be critical of the monarchy, in January this year. Although her sentence was commuted to 43 years and 6 months, because of her guilty plea, a common practice in Thailand’s legal system, her sentence is the longest, and thus harshest to date.

“The second thing is the way in which any person is able to bring a charge to the police against any other person alleged to have committed such crime. This is an administrative issue.

Amendments or revisions may come under those two aspects,” said Dr. Jade.

Anyone being able to file a complaint, be it true or false, is a practice for which this law is widely criticised. Such a case was that between two quarreling brothers in 2012. The accused was released after a year of being detained.

Other complaints, which were later dropped, include questioning the historical accuracy of an elephant battle of an Ayutthaya-era king in the 16th century, and mocking the late King Bhumibol’s dog. Neither of which were offences against any of the four figures defined in the law.

The law has also been criticised for years over its use as a political tool, to silence dissidents and political rivals. Such criticisms were voiced during the political conflict surrounding the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements over a decade ago, but the practice is particularly widespread now, as anti-establishment protesters, who are calling for reform of the monarchy, are frequently being charged with offences under the lèse majesté law.

To prevent this from happening, the academic said “a system in which this sort of charge is to be accepted” needs to be established.

“It must be that, once the police are informed, that particular officer, or that particular police station, is not able to accept the charge themselves. They will have to send the case to a committee. The committee members might consist of the police, academics and people in many walks of life, in order that the committee can assess the case and, if appropriate, forward it to the Attorney-General.”

Dr. Jade does not, however, see the law in itself as “vague” and does not feel that there is a need to repeal the law altogether as being demanded by the anti-establishment movement, saying that it is still needed to protect senior members of the royal family whom he deems to be revered. “In any society, there are taboos, there are prohibitions, there are respects,” he said.

This includes the cases which are not very clear-cut. For example, wearing certain clothes in certain ways that may be considered mockery.

“If you’re mocking someone, you have to know whom you’re mocking. In some religions, you mock a figure in that religion, they kill you. They wage war on you. When you’re mocking someone, it’s insulting. If sanity is there, then I don’t think a person would do it without intent. So, I think proving intent is not that hard,” said the legal expert.

Reported by Hathai Techakitteranun