Rivals face off as lèse majesté row hots up
The battle over Thailand’s lèse majesté law has intensified with supporters and opponents coming out in full force to fight for their cause.
Representing opponents of the Criminal Code’s Article 112, Move Forward Party on Wednesday (Feb 10) submitted a bill seeking changes to legal provisions for the crime of insulting the monarchy.
A royalist group hit back a day later by submitting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, calling on the Senate speaker to block moves to amend Article 112.
This latest face-off comes after police charged scores of anti-establishment protesters with lese majeste, including four who were indicted on Tuesday.
Four key members of the Ratsadon protest movement — Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Arnon Nampa, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Patiwat Saraiyaem — were charged with insulting the monarchy in speeches at two protests in September and November.
The Criminal Court denied bail, citing heavy penalties for the offence and the risk of the suspects repeating their alleged violation. The four accused were taken to Bangkok Remand Prison, a move that prompted angry protest by supporters at Bangkok’s Pathumwan Skywalk on Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, the new US government expressed “concern” over the arrests and “several lengthy lèse majesté sentences” in recent weeks.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the matter in a Feb 8 phone call to Thai National Security Council chief, General Natthaphon Narkphanit, the White House website reported.
Under Article 112, the crime of defaming, insulting or threatening the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent carries a penalty of three to 15 years in prison.
‘Zero chance’ of success
Experts, however, see zero chance of the draconian law being changed.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science, said the face-off between conservatives and reformists over the lese majeste law is predictable. This confrontation is more than a decade old and will go on until conservatives change their mindset, he added.
“This proves that the country has no truly open platforms for debate on why this law should be amended,” Titipol said.
He said conservatives refuse to debate because they are clinging to the belief that the reformists’ aim is to abolish the monarchy.
“If you study the details [of the amendment draft], you will see that the proponents have no intention to abolish the monarchy.”
Move Forward believes the law is being used as a political tool against this government’s opponents, hence the push for amendment, the political analyst said.
He added that frequent enforcement of Article 112 also risks damaging the monarchy’s image.
But he believes changing the lese majeste law will be impossible while conservative groups and the government find it useful as a “political weapon”.
“Perhaps they are not against reforming Article 112 [in principle] but are only fighting its amendment to strengthen their political popularity,” Titipol said.
Involving the monarchy in the no-confidence motion has sparked angry accusations from the government camp that this constitutes a grave insult to the revered institution. However, observers say opposition parties have every right to bring up the topic since the censure motion accurately describes the government’s misconduct.
Royalists launch counter-move
Politician Warong Dechgitvigrom, a leader of the royalist Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thais) party, on Thursday (Feb 11) submitted a petition to Senate Speaker Pornpetch Wichitcholchai opposing any attempt to amend the lèse majesté law.
He denied the law restricts human rights and freedoms, insisting it only targets those who insult the monarchy intentionally.
“Some political groups harbour ill-will towards the monarchy and are hiding this under the guise of reform,” he said.
In its proposed amendment, Move Forward (Kao Klai in Thai) seeks to reduce the penalty to no more than one year in prison or a maximum fine of Bt300,000 for insults to the King, and a maximum six-month term or fine of Bt200,000 for insults to the Queen, Heir-apparent or Regent.
Under the proposed change, only the Royal Household Bureau should file lese majeste complaints with the police, not everybody, as is the case now.
Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat and secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said the aim was simply to make the lese majeste law “more relevant to present circumstances”.
However, nine Move Forward MPs have withdrawn support for the amendment following pressure from their constituents. Karom Polpornklang, one of the rebels, said laws are not a problem for those who do not violate them.
Pita disagrees, saying his party wants to ensure the lèse majesté law is no longer exploited by people in power to gag their opponents.
He said he is also aware that stiff resistance to the amendment push could also lead to Move Forward being dissolved by the Constitutional Court.
Early this month, lawyer Nattaporn Toprayoon filed a complaint with the Election Commission seeking Move Forward’s dissolution over actions he deems “hostile to a democratic regime with the King as head of state”.
His complaint cited the opposition party’s proposal to amend the lèse majesté law and its MPs bailing out protesters charged with the crime.
“They [Move Forward] are supporting protesters whose actions … insult the monarchy to incite disorder and damage state property and the country’s economy,” reads the complaint.
The youth-led protest movement began calling for monarchy reform last year, with protest leaders harshly criticising an institution that is revered by many. The criticism is what triggered the charges of Royal defamation.
The number of lèse majesté cases has been mounting since November, when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that “all laws” would be enforced to tackle the anti-government protesters.
However, opposition politicians – particularly Move Forward MPs and their allies in the Progressive Movement – have continued their push for reform.
However, critics doubt the charter rewriters will be free from political interference. Last November, lawmakers passed the two charter amendment drafts in the first reading. The drafts pave the way for a Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) to write a new charter, but stipulate that chapters on the monarchy and general provisions be left untouched.
Warning to reformists
Move Forward’s proposed amendment to the lèse majesté law has angered government MPs, who warn it will result in the second-largest opposition party being shunned by voters at future elections.
Former red-shirt leader Suporn Atthawong, who defected to the government side and is now vice minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, said reformists just want to be able to insult the monarchy without facing criminal charges.
Praising Thai Pakdee for submitting a counter-proposal to stop the amendment, Suporn warned that Move Forward could ignite a nationwide conflict as many people oppose change to the law.
“I warn them [Move Forward] not to displease the people. If they go ahead, their political future could be impacted. They may get booed during election campaigns, face protests and even lose in all elections,” he said.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk