For all the bickering among Thai political parties, they agree on one thing: Now isn’t the time to amend a law last changed in 1976 that has been used to shield the royal family from criticism.
Only about three of 500 House of Representatives members support a bill that reduces jail terms for people convicted of royal insults, according to Jarupan Kuldiloke, one of the members backing the effort. The ruling party has declined to endorse it.
The aversion from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party may bolster its monarchist credentials as it seeks to avoid being ousted in a similar way to governments linked to her brother Thaksin since he was deposed in 2006. The army, which opposes changes to the law, cited disrespect of the king to justify the coup against Thaksin and declined to disperse royalist protests in 2008 that preceded the fall of his allies.
“Rational public debate is playing second fiddle to various political imperatives -- these include constantly changing attempts to appease hardline royalists,” said Michael Connors, a Thai studies scholar at La Trobe University in Melbourne. The strongest bargaining point for Pheu Thai leaders may be their ability to “largely shut down anti-monarchy discourse or at least alienate it,” he said.
Yingluck’s party has instead prioritized amending the constitution, and passing a broad amnesty that would include Thaksin, who’s in self-imposed exile abroad after his 2008 conviction for abuse of power as prime minister.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 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 Vajiralongkorn, 59, has fought off publicity about his personal life. Thailand will mark 80 years since absolute monarchy ended on June 24.
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 punishment wasn’t always as harsh. In 1908, when Bhumibol’s grandfather King Chulalongkorn reigned, displays of malice or defamation carried a seven-year jail sentence, according to a research paper by academics Somchai Preechasilpakul and David Streckfuss. The government tightened the law in 1956 to outlaw insults and a military order in 1976 increased jail terms to 15 years, according to the paper.
The submission of the new bill came 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. Parliament, which is set to reconvene in August, is vetting the signatures submitted by the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 of the criminal code.
Hundreds of people who joined a January event kicking off the signature drive wore red shirts, linking them with a pro-Thaksin group that the army accused of plotting to overthrow the monarchy during demonstrations in 2010. The protests ended in a military crackdown and left 93 people dead.
Thaksin, who has seen parties linked to him win the past five elections, has blamed Prem Tinsulanonda, head of the king’s 19-member Privy Council and a former prime minister, for helping orchestrate his overthrow. 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.
Protect the Monarchy
Jarupan, a member of Pheu Thai, says amending the law would protect the monarchy, in part because of the divisiveness over the current high punishment. “I’m trying right now to explain to our friends in the Pheu Thai party to make this law prioritized,” she said.
Pheu Thai, which controls 53 percent of seats in the lower house, “has no policy to amend section 112,” Prompong Nopparit, a spokesman, said by phone. After taking office last year, the government set up a war room to monitor lese-majeste offenses on the Internet and shut down more than 5,000 web pages with material it deemed offensive, Human Rights Watch said in April.
The main opposition Democrat party, which holds 32 percent of seats, also won’t back changes to the law at the moment, according to Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, a spokesman.
“We are open to listen to people who have ideas to change the laws, but we are not supporting the people who use this to attack the royal family,” he said by phone. “The royal family needs protection.”
The number of lese-majeste 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 Article 112 campaign committee. The law’s application is also linked to the Computer Crimes Act, which Google Inc. criticized last month after a court penalized a web master for insults to the royal family posted to a Bangkok-based website.
The U.S., European Union and United Nations called on Thailand to respect freedom of speech following convictions last year, including of Ampol Tangnoppakul, who received a 20-year jail term for sending four mobile-phone text messages that defamed Queen Sirikit. The 62-year-old former truck driver died in custody last month.
Proponents of leaving the law unchanged reject criticism from foreigners as undue meddling in Thai affairs. Political parties will lose support among the country’s 67 million people if they back any proposal to amend the law, according to Komsan Photikong, a law lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University who opposes any change to the current statute.
“Foreigners shouldn’t interfere with our issue because they don’t understand us,” he said by phone. “The status of our king and other kings in western countries are totally different. Our king is the center of people’s hearts. They can’t use their standards to judge our case.”
Some pushing to change the law say they have received threats. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan who helped lead a campaign to free Ampol and called for the law’s abolition, said he received two anonymous phone calls warning him of bodily harm if he speaks about the issue while visiting his homeland this week.
“It worries me a little bit but I can’t run away from Thailand,” said Pavin, a former Thai diplomat who is also affiliated with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “If I run away this time, then what about in the future. Does it mean I can’t go back to Thailand? That’s a bit absurd because I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Source of Support
Calls to change the lese-majeste law extend beyond academics and the Thaksin-linked Red Shirts. A reconciliation committee established by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the wake of the 2010 violence, and supported by Yingluck’s government after it took office last August, proposed changes to the law because maintaining it may “obstruct reconciliation.”
The group proposed in December to lower the maximum penalty for lese majeste to seven years, with all investigations preceding only on authority of the Lord Chamberlain, a part of the palace bureaucracy. Currently, any Thai citizen can lodge a lese-majeste complaint with the police.
The bill submitted to Parliament would reduce the maximum penalty to three years for insulting, defaming and threatening the king and two years for the queen, heir apparent and regent. The proposal allows special exemptions for “good-faith” criticisms or truthful claims made in the public interest and prevents anyone except the king’s principal private secretary’s office from bringing charges.
Even if rejected, the proposals are useful for educating people about the need to change Article 112 before challenges escalate as the succession to King Bhumibol approaches, according to Charnvit Kasetsiri, a former rector of Thammasat University who helped present the bill to parliament.
“On the surface Thailand looks like a land of smiles,” Charnvit said. “But deep down in cyberspace, with the coming of the new world, it’s rather messy.”