Verdict against monarchy reformers lights fuse for new round of Thai conflict: experts
Last week’s controversial Constitutional Court verdict is likely to rekindle Thailand’s political conflict and fan the flames among anti-establishment groups already furious over legal action stemming from the lèse-majesté law, analysts warn.
They expect the youth-led movement to step up protests after the court ruled last Wednesday (Nov 10) that three of its leaders — Arnon Nampa, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok — gave speeches aimed at overthrowing the state and the monarchy.
It was Panusaya who, in August last year, unveiled the movement’s 10 demands for monarchy reform during a rally at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus.
The court ordered the trio and their allies to end all moves against the monarchy after ruling that their reform demands amounted to an attempt to overthrow the country’s democratic system with the King as head of state.
Analysts say the verdict also leaves the opposition Move Forward Party vulnerable to dissolution via legal action – the same fate suffered by its popular precursor, Future Forward.
Some observers view that efforts spearheaded by Move Forward to amend the lèse-majesté law in Article 112 of the Criminal Code are likely to run into more obstacles.
Adding fuel to fire
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, forecast the youth-led movement would escalate its rallies to express anger and strong opposition to the verdict.
It would also continue to insist that its push for reform was not aimed at overthrowing the monarchy, giving it the freedom and legal right to make such demands, he added.
Fellow political pundit Wanwichit Boonprong, from Rangsit University, agreed but predicted the verdict would not lead to violence as the protesters would simply focus on questioning and criticizing the ruling.
“What frightens me is society’s judgment on the court. The Constitutional Court will suffer a barrage of criticism,” Wanwichit said.
“Without reading the verdicts carefully, people feel like the government always benefits from court rulings while the other side [the opposition and protesters] always loses,” he added.
A large group of angry protesters took to the streets on Sunday afternoon to rally against what they called “absolute monarchy”. Two protesters were injured during a clash with crowd-control police.
The demonstrators dispersed in the evening after handing their statement to the German Embassy, explaining that they were opposing absolute monarchy.
HM the King is known to have spent a considerable amount of time living in Germany.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and government legal adviser Wissanu Kreangam warned that protest leaders should be more careful after the court ruling as they can no longer cite the right to free expression to justify their actions.
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.
Mounting pressure on Parliament
The next big push for reform comes on Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov 16-17), when Parliament will debate and vote on a charter-change draft sponsored by civil society.
Stithorn said pro-reform rallies would focus pressure on Parliament to pass the draft, which seeks changes to the Constitutional Court and other independent organizations, plus revisions to the lèse-majesté law in Article 112.
Meanwhile, popular support will grow for the Move Forward Party’s attempt to amend Article 112, he added.
The amendment draft was proposed by the Re-Solution group and gained support from more than 150,000 voters, making it eligible for Parliamentary consideration.
The draft seeks to replace Constitutional Court judges and members of other independent organizations while strengthening scrutiny of these bodies, among others.
Strong determination for change
Move Forward recently intensified its push for changes to the lèse majesté law, warning that its present form was triggering resistance and resentment that could lead to a breaking point, resulting in the law’s forced repeal.
Stithorn said there would be “parallel moves” by anti-establishment activists and parliamentarians who support their cause. For them, if relevant parts of the Constitution remain unchanged, the political divide will widen and they could be stigmatized for allegedly pushing to abolish the constitutional monarchy.
This is the second time that Parliament will vote on a civil bill to amend this Constitution, which was written under the junta regime following the 2014 coup.
“It won’t be as easy for lawmakers to reject this people-proposed charter amendment bill, as they did to the draft proposed by [civil group] iLaw. But the result will depend on how much pressure the protesters can bring to bear. I think the government may buy time by appointing a committee to study the draft before voting,” said Stithorn.
Article 112 amendment hits snag?
Royalists seem convinced that the Constitutional Court ruling should end moves to amend Article 112 and reform the monarchy.
Senator Gen Somjet Boonthanom, an adviser to the Senate committee on human rights, liberties and consumer protection, warned reformists to heed the verdict as Constitutional Court rulings were binding on all relevant actors, including Parliament. Amending Article 112 “will not be easy” now that the court has ruled against calls for monarchy reform, he added.
However, an online campaign led by the Progressive Movement and Rassadon Group to abolish the lèse-majesté law has so far attracted more than 220,000 supporters.
Meanwhile, a day after the ruling, 23 student groups issued a joint statement disputing the court’s argument that demanding monarchy reform was the same as attempting to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.
The timing of the enactment of Thailand’s law against torture and enforced disappearance and whether Thailand will ratify the Optional Protocols of the Convention against Torture were questioned at Thailand’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday. Concerns have also been raised over the current implementation of the Kingdom’s lèse majesté law.
Move Forward threatened with dissolution
Rangsit University’s Wanwichit views that the verdict could pave the way for the ruling Palang Pracharath Party to “uproot” Move Forward, since Constitutional Court rulings also cover political parties.
Along with the three defendants, the court order to halt reform moves also targeted other “organizations and networks”.
Move Forward could be construed as one of those “others”, after being linked to the protest movement. The opposition party’s MPs have been spotted at rallies, although they claimed to be there as observers. Meanwhile, its MPs have offered themselves as guarantors for bail release of arrested protest leaders, and the party is also pushing hard for substantial changes to the lèse-majesté law.
Natthaporn Toprayoon, a former adviser to the Ombudsman who filed the petition that led to the Nov 10 court ruling, said he would ask the Election Commission to consider dissolving Move Forward based on the verdict.
Hence, Wanchiwit is pessimistic about the opposition party’s prospects for survival.
“It’s likely you won’t see Move Forward contesting the next election. Its MPs may be preparing to move to other parties in the pro-democracy bloc,” said the academic.
Stithorn, however, sees no reason why Move Forward should back off from its reform push to avoid possible dissolution.
For him, Move Forward’s continued fight makes it’s obvious to the protesters which party represents them. The opposition party can defend against legal attacks while counting on the support of the youth movement.
“Even if the party is dissolved, they can set up a new one,” the analyst added. “There will always be a party to represent the pro-reform ideology, no matter what.”
Move Forward replaced Future Forward after the latter was dissolved in February last year for receiving illegal donations.
Hot campaign issue
Observers said the court ruling will be a hot issue in campaigning for the next general election, which is expected next year.
“The issue connects to the standpoints of political parties. They are now showing their stances — which parties support the verdict and which agree with the youngster movement,” said Stithorn.
Meanwhile, Wanwichit said the court verdict was not unexpected. However, extending the interpretation of overthrowing the political regime beyond the three defendants to cover their “network” would lead to a new political conflict, he warned.
He pointed out that a military coup could also be interpreted as “overthrowing the political regime”.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk