Any changes to a Thai law that protects Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and other royal family members from insults should come from his advisers, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said.
Several groups have proposed amending the law, most recently a committee set up by the previous government to forge reconciliation after more than 90 people were killed in protests backed by Thaksin in 2010 that ended in a military crackdown. His allies now control Parliament after the party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, won a majority in elections last year.
“The privy councilors should be the ones who consider whether we should emphasize the process, whether it should be amended,” Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, said in an interview in Singapore yesterday, referring to the lese-majeste law. “I don’t think the government will initiate. It must be initiated from the privy councilors.”
Political parties have avoided suggesting amendments to the law even as the number of cases increased more than 10 times in the years following the coup. The army cited disrespect of the king to justify Thaksin’s ouster and declined to disperse protests in 2008 by his opponents, who accused him of undermining the monarchy.
“He is probably right in that changes to lese-majeste laws must, at least at this stage, come from within the royal institution itself,” Johannes Lund, a Singapore-based analyst at Control Risks, said in an e-mail, referring to Thaksin. “The political scene is so deeply polarized that any move to amend laws surrounding the institution would make the government vulnerable to attacks from the opposition, both within the military and in political circles.”
Bhumibol, 84, assumed the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” Five state-run television channels air broadcasts on royal activities each night, and an anthem praising him is played before movies in theaters across the country. The king’s only son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 60, has fought off publicity about his personal life.
The lese-majeste law, which falls under Article 112 of the criminal code, mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.
The Truth for Reconciliation Committee this month said the government and National Assembly should consider changing the law to eliminate harsh jail sentences and make it harder to file accusations. In May, a group pushing for changes to the law submitted a new bill to Parliament through a petition with about 30,000 signatures from members of the public, triple the amount required by the constitution for lawmakers to consider legislative initiatives.
Thaksin said judges had abused their authority with severe punishments for lese majeste in recent years. The number of cases before the lower courts increased to 478 in 2010 from 33 in 2005, a year before the coup that ousted Thaksin, according to statistics compiled by the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 of the criminal code.
Among those sentenced included Ampol Tangnoppakul, 62, who died in custody in May about seven months after a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for sending text messages that threatened and defamed Queen Sirikit. The sentence prompted the U.S., European Union and United Nations to issue statements calling on Thailand to respect freedom of speech.
The lese-majeste law “is not aimed at curbing people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression nor the legitimate exercise of academic freedom, including debates about the monarchy as an institution,” Thani Thongphakdi, foreign ministry spokesman, said in a Dec. 14 statement after Ampol’s sentence. Still, “those who abuse their rights by spreading hate speeches or distorted information to incite violence and hatred among Thais” must be held accountable, he said.
Thaksin has lived overseas since fleeing a two-year jail sentence in 2008 on charges that stemmed from a military- appointed panel after the coup. He has seen parties linked to him win the past five elections.
The 19-member Privy Council “has the duty to render such advice to the King on all matters pertaining to his functions as he may consult,” according to the constitution. Members include Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister who Thaksin has blamed for helping orchestrate his overthrow, and Surayud Chulanont, who was appointed as premier after the coup.
Bhumibol has lived in a Bangkok hospital since 2009, suffering from various illnesses and back pain. He has made several public appearances, including one in May when he donned a military uniform on a visit to Ayutthaya province outside of Bangkok.
The monarch on Sept. 22 had a fever, coughing and elevated heart rate, the Royal Household Bureau said in a statement. His body temperature came down the next day after his medical team gave him antibiotics, it said.
Queen Sirikit, 80, suffered a loss of blood flow to her brain in July, according to the Royal Household Bureau. Her condition improved this month, and she can sleep, eat and move her body while undergoing physical therapy, it said in a Sept. 21 statement.
The royal succession may lead to inconveniences for businesses because of a mourning period, while more significant disruptions that would come from a derailed succession process are “very unlikely,” according to Lund from Control Risks. The transition over time will prompt a decline in the monarchy’s political significance and allow for “a much delayed public discussion around how to modernize the institution,” he said.
“There shouldn’t be any problem about the succession of the throne,” Thaksin said, noting that the king is still continuing to work even though he is in the hospital. “There is nothing to worry.”
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