11 July 2024

Thailand is bracing for unprecedented chaos in Parliament later this month when the opposition shatters a deep-seated taboo by citing the monarchy in its censure motion against the prime minister.

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. They expect the opposition will accuse the government of deploying the lese majeste (Royal defamation) law to gag the student-led anti-establishment movement.

Experts warn that opposition MPs will face stiff resistance during the debate, including the risk of being hit with serious lawsuits.

Opposition parties last week submitted a motion to censure Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine other Cabinet members – mostly for alleged mismanagement.

General Prayut, who doubles as defence minister, is accused of “destroying the bond between the monarchy and the people”. The motion claims that the monarchy is being used to divide the people and also to shield his government’s mistakes and failures.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, speaks during a press conference in Bangkok on January 21, 2021, after he was accused on Wednesday of contravening Thailand’s strict royal defamation lese majeste laws by posting a video criticising the government’s Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine strategy. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Along with the prime minister, the opposition is also targeting Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy PM and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy PM and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, his deputy Nipon Bunyamanee, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, Labour Minister Suchat Chomklin, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob and Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the opposition has the right to question any issue it considers relevant to government operations, including the alleged use of the Royal institution as a “weapon” to intimidate opponents.

“The government has used Article 112 [the lese majeste law] as a political tool instead of using it to protect the institution,” Titipol said.

The use of the lese majeste law had been suspended in 2018 thanks to His Majesty the King’s graciousness, General Prayut said in June last year. The law came back into play after the premier announced in November last year that all laws and provisions would be used to prosecute protesters “who violate the law and fail to respect other people’s rights and liberties”

At least 55 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since anti-establishment protesters took to the streets in mid-2020, according to Thai human rights NGO iLaw (the Internet Law Reform Dialogue). The law carries harsh punishment of up to 15 years in prison for anyone who defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, heir-apparent or the regent.

“If the Prayut government wants to reduce political conflict, then it had better stop using the [lese majeste] law,” Titipol said.

Government MPs should also be open to all issues raised during the censure debate, he advised. They should not make the monarchy a taboo subject, but instead acknowledge that if the public have doubts about an issue, it should be discussed in Parliament.

“Parliament should be a space for topics to be debated so that the ongoing political conflict is resolved,” he said.

Anti-establishment protests have smashed a deep taboo by calling for reform of the monarchy – an institution shielded from criticism by both law and tradition in Thailand’s strongly hierarchal society. The role of the monarch has become a core target for protesters ever since it was first raised at a rally in August 2020.

Fresh push to abolish lese majeste law triggers fierce pushback from Thai establishment

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.

Strict law and order

However, observers fear the public interest will fall victim to protest and chaos in Parliament over the censure motion’s sensitive topic.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said opposition MPs will find it difficult to speak freely without violating regulations and laws.

“Everything they say will have to be carefully thought out or else they will face protest and disruption from the government side. The House speaker may also call a halt to the battle,” said Wanwichit. “The strictest regulations are expected to be invoked to maintain law and order in the meeting.”

However, the opposition bloc is expected to launch an all-out effort to compensate for its lacklustre performance in last year’s no-confidence debate, he added.

The previous debate gave rise to allegations of “match-fixing” that saw opposition-leader Pheu Thai do a deal with government parties to spare certain Cabinet members from being grilled.

“If the opposition fails [to restore their credibility] this time, the government will get to remain in power for longer. And don’t forget, they [the government and opposition] will be competing in the Bangkok governor elections later this year, so they must do all they can to win voters’ support,” Wanwichit said.

Deputy Prime Minister and legal expert Wissanu Krea-ngam affirmed the monarchy can be brought up in the censure debate, but cautioned that speakers must be very careful about what they say. He said the opposition should make sure it targets ministers, not the monarchy.

“MPs have parliamentary immunity [from prosecution], but as soon as the meeting is broadcast, that immunity is waived. Previous debates have resulted in many lawsuits,” the government’s legal expert pointed out.

If any part of the debate or a government answer cannot be revealed to the public, MPs and ministers can ask to discuss the subject behind closed doors, he added.

Stakes high for Thailand’s opposition as censure debate targets govt

The opposition bloc’s performance during last year’s no-confidence debate brought allegations of “match-fixing”, with critics claiming certain Cabinet members were intentionally spared scrutiny. Opposition parties on Monday (Jan 25) submitted a motion to censure Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine other Cabinet members – mostly for alleged mismanagement.

No offence intended

The government whip has called on the opposition to remove all references to the monarchy or prepare to face protests during the debate. However, the opposition bloc is standing by its motion, while promising to be cautious when referring to the monarchy.

The allegation in the motion related to the monarchy was written by the second-largest opposition party – Move Forward. Its secretary-general Chaitawat Tulathon insists the motion does not violate parliamentary regulations, adding that his party will be judicious and mature in only mentioning the monarchy when necessary.

“We will grill the government [in the debate], not the monarchy. It is not our aim to offend the institution,” Chaitawat said.

However, ruling Palang Pracharath Party MP Sira Jenjaka has threatened to file lese majeste charges against all opposition MPs who sign the censure motion.

The no-confidence motion is scheduled for debate on February 16 to 19.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk