11 July 2024

Thailand’s heated debate over the lèse-majesté law has been revived, with supporters and detractors clashing on social media following the arrest of dozens of alleged violators in recent weeks.

Some politicians have called for the repeal of Article 112 of the Criminal Code, under which defaming, insulting or threatening the King, the Queen, the heir-apparent or the regent is punishable with imprisonment of three to 15 years.

Messages insulting the monarchy are now being found frequently in Thai social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

Meanwhile, hashtags either supporting Article 112 or calling for its repeal were top-trending on Thai Twitter this month.

After a short hiatus, protesters returned to the streets last Saturday (Jan 16) to campaign against the lèse-majesté law.

A group gathered near Victory Monument in Bangkok to write messages criticising the government and the law on a 112-metre-long cloth banner. In Pathum Thani province, another group raised a red flag carrying the figure “112” up a flagpole at a police station.

The protesters were arrested for violating the emergency decree invoked to contain COVID-19.

The anti-establishment demonstration on January 16, 2021 at the Victory monument in Bangkok.

The fresh wave of attacks on Article 112 came as academic-turned-politician Piyabutr Saengkanokkul renewed his campaign for cancellation of the lèse-majesté law.

Writing on Facebook last Thursday (Jan 14), Piyabutr called on MPs to push for a bill that would remove Article 112 from the Criminal Code “at the soonest possible time”.

He said MPs “must show their courage” and fight for the future generations of Thailand.

Piyabutr, secretary-general of the Progressive Movement, said defamation in general – whether it be of royals or commoners – should be made a civil rather than a criminal offence, and honest criticism in the public interest should be exempted.

“In the 21st century, nobody should be jailed for exercising their freedom of expression,” he wrote.

Piyabutr, banned from politics after his Future Forward Party was dissolved by court last year, is credited for inspiring calls by protesters last year for reform of the monarchy.

In his Facebook post, he claimed that public support for annulment of Article 112 has risen significantly in past year or so, and that MPs who push for a change would get strong backing.

Meanwhile the Move Forward Party – Future Forward’s reincarnation – said it will submit a motion seeking to amend the Criminal Code involving Article 112 when the new Parliament session starts in May.

Secretary-general of the Move Forward Party Chaithawat Tulathon said it would also seek changes to the Computer Crime Act and the Public Assembly Act to “protect people’s right to expression”.

However, observers see only a slim chance that Parliament will repeal Article 112, since support for the motion in the House of Representatives would be mostly limited to Move Forward MPs.

Senator Seree Suwanpanon said on Friday (Jan 15) most political parties – including the opposition Pheu Thai – do not support amendment or annulment of the lèse-majesté law.

“And it’s impossible the Senate will support such a motion,” he added.

At least 46 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since anti-establishment protesters took to the streets in mid-2020, according to Internet Law Reform Dialogue, the Thai human rights NGO better known as iLaw.

Efforts to scrap the lèse-majesté law are facing strong pushback, as critics insist the move threatens Thailand’s national security.

Royalist politician Warong Dechgitvigrom voiced opposition to Piyabutr’s call to cancel Article 112, saying it was a cornerstone of the country’s political system – constitutional monarchy.

A leader of the royalist group Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thais), Warong said a dark hand was behind efforts to scrap the law.

If the penalty of imprisonment was removed, he wrote on Facebook last Thursday, “evil capitalists” would have their “lackeys” spread more anti-monarchy messages online, as they could certainly afford the fines.

Activist Srisuwan Janya, chief of the Association for Protection of the Thai Constitution, also opposed any effort to remove the law against insulting the monarchy.

He said the relevant clause was necessary to comply with the Constitution, which states that, “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”

Srisuwan said the surge in alleged violations of the lèse-majesté law was “not natural”, and instead the result of attempts to “incite young people” to challenge Article 112.

He also threatened possible legal action against any MPs who pushed to repeal the lèse-majesté law. “They may be deemed attempting to overthrow the political system,” Srisuwan said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk