11 July 2024

Legal amnesty for people charged with political crimes has been a hot potato for the past decade in Thailand.

An attempt in 2013 by Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai government to pass an amnesty law covering anyone charged in connection with political conflicts led to massive street protests that culminated in a military coup in May 2014. Later moves to push for an amnesty law all failed.

Now, Pheu Thai’s return to power has sparked fresh efforts by parties and civic groups to pass a blanket pardon for political cases. However, a heated debate has emerged over whether the legislation should cover lese majeste cases under Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

The House of Representatives on February 1 resolved to set up a 35-member ad hoc committee tasked with studying the prospective amnesty law, proposed by the ruling Pheu Thai party. The panel was given 60 days to complete its mission.

‘Amnesty should be for everyone’

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a lecturer at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, insists that to secure full political reconciliation, a new amnesty law must cover all criminal cases of a political nature. For him, that includes lese majeste cases.

An amnesty that excludes lese majeste suspects and convicts would be “incomplete and lacking legitimacy”.

He believes amnesty should be granted in all political cases except those involving corruption or the masterminding of violence.

Meanwhile leaving out lese majeste cases would represent a failure to address the “root cause” of the problem, he said.

“We must acknowledge that people are being persecuted with Article 112. This clause has been used as a political tool to destroy political enemies,” the academic said.

He added that the monarchy is being damaged by allegations that lese majeste is being used as a political weapon.

Threats to the monarchy is “why everyone doesn’t want Article 112 cases to be included in the amnesty law. But in fact, if we leave it out, the problem will remain unsolved,” Olarn said.

The amnesty bill supported by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government also covered corruption and murder cases, which angered many people who took to the streets. Suspicion arose that the draft law had been designed to benefit Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who faced numerous corruption charges stemming from his time as prime minister before his government was ousted in the 2006 military coup.

Calling for ‘mature debate’

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, is optimistic that the differences over an amnesty for lese majeste cases will be settled through “extensive, mature debate”.

An amnesty law is the “destination”, he said, but more important is the process of creating mutual trust between those involved.

“Over the past 20 years, we have talked a lot about reconciliation and harmony, but there have been no concrete results.”

Yuthaporn, a member of the House ad hoc committee, reckoned that “deliberative democracy” – in which deliberation is central to decision-making – should be adopted in drafting the new amnesty law. He said a fixed concept of what can be included in the law or not, or how the final legislation will look, is unlikely to lead to success.

He pointed to the surge in lese majeste cases in recent years as proof that the law is being used with political motivations.

Yuthaporn called for “mature debate” involving all stakeholders and factors – including Constitutional Court verdicts – to find a solution acceptable to all and to help ease the conflict.

“I am confident there is an open space for debating an amnesty law in a democratic atmosphere. All groups of people are allowed to express their opinions freely and maturely,” the academic said.

Four amnesty bills proposed

Four amnesty bills have been proposed for parliamentary deliberation separately by three political parties – Move Forward, United Thai Nation, and Thai Teachers for People – and the People’s Amnesty Network (PAN), a coalition of civil groups and activists. The proposed draft laws contain between nine and 14 articles.

Only the PAN bill explicitly includes an amnesty for lese majeste violators. The draft laws of the United Thai Nation and Thai Teachers for People exclude lese majeste as well as political corruption. Move Forward’s bill does not mention lese majeste cases, although the party has campaigned for amendment of Article 112.

The amnesty legislation proposed by Move Forward and the civil network would not grant pardons to state officials involved in crackdowns on protesters and those who overthrow a government or the Constitution.

23 amnesty laws so far

Since the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has seen a total of 23 amnesty laws. Most have been granted to coup-makers following their ouster of a government and abolition of the constitution – a serious crime as per every constitution ever written in Thailand.

The country’s first amnesty law was issued two days after the Siamese Revolution in June 1932, in which the People’s Party (Khana Rassadon) seized power from King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). The amnesty law was countersigned by the king himself.

Eleven amnesty laws have been issued to pardon people involved in 11 separate military coups, ranging from the June 1933 putsch to the latest one in May 2014. Nine came in the form of an act, while two were included in post-coup interim charters issued after the power seizures in September 2006 and May 2014.

Five other amnesty laws have been issued for those involved in mostly failed coup attempts who were subsequently charged with treason or rebellion.

Three amnesties were issued for all those involved in the country’s three major popular uprisings – in October 1973, October 1976, and May 1992.

One amnesty law issued in August 1989 exempted punishment for those convicted of violating the Anti-Communism Act.

Another one was issued in April 1946 to pardon people who joined the resistance against occupying Japanese forces during World War II.

An amnesty was also passed in January 1974 for three former Democrat MPs who sought treason charges for Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and 16 others for staging the November 1971 coup. The junta leader hit back with an order to jail the trio for seven to 10 years. The politicians were jailed for almost two years before the amnesty law was issued by Thanom’s civilian successor, Prof Sanya Dharmasakti, who became prime minister after the authoritarian ruler was ousted in a student-led popular uprising in October 1973.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk