ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Lese-Majeste Law Takes Center Stage at UN Rights Review

To make a breakthrough on the lèse-majesté problem in Thailand, the international community must seriously rethink its strategy.

Thailand’s Lese-Majeste Law Takes Center Stage at UN Rights Review

A pro-democracy supporter wears a face mask with the sign “no 112”, denouncing a section in the Thai criminal code for lese-majeste laws as she participates in a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Thailand’s Constitutional Court said on November 10 that calls for royal reform might be seditious. The court’s opinion is likely to be used to justify the imprisonment of some core protesters and to prevent future protests. It undoubtedly sent out a chilling effect on the lèse-majesté situation in Thailand. From November 2020 to August 2021, 124 individuals were charged under Article 112, including eight children under the age of 18. The sharp rise of lèse-majesté cases indicates that the law has repeatedly been exploited as a political tool to undermine critics of the monarchy.

The court ruling coincided with the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Thailand, which took place on November 10 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Basically, the UPR process regularly reviews the human rights situation of the U.N. members, including Thailand. This year, Thailand was put under the global spotlight owing to the increasing use of lèse-majesté law against its citizens.

The international community was this year particularly vocal and forceful about the need for Thailand to reform the draconian lèse-majesté law. It must be emphasized that Western governments were not alone in voicing concerns on the lèse-majesté situation. Some Asian and developing countries also shared their concerns, including Afghanistan, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and Timor-Leste.

Aside from the lèse-majesté law, the UPR on Thailand also covered a wide range of human rights issues, namely freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, protection of human rights defenders (from harassment, attacks, and strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPP suits), and enforced disappearances and torture. But the real focus was on the reform of Article 112, an immensely difficult issue given its sensitive nature.

So far in Thailand’s UPR session, 12 countries have recommended the modification of Article 112 from various perspectives: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States,.

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Their recommendations can be divided into three categories.

Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the United States recommended the modification of the law so as to guarantee freedom of expression and the right of assembly (in regard to the ongoing protests calling for monarchic reforms). The United States also recommended the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for lèse-majesté violations.

Belgium, Norway, and Sweden advocated the amendment of Article 112 in order to bring Thailand into conformity with international standards under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to prevent it from being used to silence opponents.

Austria, Denmark, and Finland called for the end of arrests and prosecution of children under Article 112 and respect for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In the face of international pressure, the Thai government vigorously defended Article 112 during its responses to the interactive dialogue, citing the monarchy’s place as the “main pillar of the nation,” which was “highly revered by Thais.” The Thai Foreign Ministry argued that, in terms of application, not all complaints have resulted in formal charges and prosecution. Given the sensitivity of the issue, law enforcement authorities must perform due diligence and a final decision whether or not to prosecute the cases rests with the Attorney General.

It also said, “Appeals are often invoked and if the accused do not pose a risk of committing further violations of the law, their bail requests would also be granted. Like in many other countries, any review of the law is an issue for the Thai people to decide. Current discussions reflect the functioning of relevant parliamentary and constitutional mechanisms that allow different voices to be heard in the consideration of this very important law.”

On November 12, two days after the UPR process, the Thai government officially responded to the recommendations, stressing its unbending position on Article 112. Of 278 recommendations, Thailand has adopted 194. Thus, 84 recommendations have not yet been adopted, of which 12 are related to the reform of Article 112. Thailand said that it would further review those 84 recommendations and will inform the United Nations in Geneva of its response by March 2022.

That Thailand defended Article 112 strongly may indicate its own concern about how it is perceived internationally vis-à-vis the lèse-majesté law. In this sense, despite the government’s pushback, continued international advocacy in this regard remains promising and important.

To make a breakthrough on the lèse-majesté problem in Thailand, the international community must seriously rethink its strategy. While the domestic push and international pressure regarding the reform of Article 112 are simultaneously taking place, there is still a lack of coordination between the internal and external factors. So far there has been no effort in constructing a kind of cross-border coalition to produce a common strategy in pressuring Thailand to reform this law. Organizations in and outside of Thailand have done their own things without strategically engaging with one another.

Additionally, while this year Western governments were particularly adamant in their recommendations for the lèse-majesté law amendment, no other concrete measures have been offered. In other words, both the West and the United Nations lack enforcing mechanisms against Thailand should the lèse-majesté situation worsen. Equally important is how to persuade more non-Western countries, particularly Thailand’s neighbors, to support the call for lèse-majesté law reform.

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While Thailand is reviewing whether some of recommendations on Article 112 will be adopted, the international community have time to coordinate with domestic forces inside the country through a coalition building that would offer the best solution to the lèse-majesté crisis.

More Thais are arrested for lèse-majesté everyday, including the young. Domestic forces urgently need help from the international community.