In Thailand, the past two years have seen more than 130 people charged with insulting the country’s monarchy – many of them student activists who led the mass protests that roiled the capital Bangkok in late 2020 and early 2021. The country’s lese-majeste law, which criminalizes any criticism of the king, the royal family, or the institution of the monarchy, and carries punishments of up to 15 years in prison, has long been viewed by dissenting political activists as a block on a full and open discussion about the country’s lopsided concentrations of political and economic power.
One of the most outspoken critics of the lese-majeste law is Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled Thai academic who currently serves as associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Pavin, who faces arrest if he ever returns to Thailand, recently launched 112WATCH, an internationally focused campaign aiming for the repeal of Article 112 of the Thai penal code, as the lese-majeste law is formally known. In a recent email exchange, he spoke with The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio about the origins of the campaign, the recent spate of lese-majeste cases, and the question of whether public reverence for the Thai monarchy is waning.
Tell me about the origins of 112WATCH, and how you envision the repeal of Thailand’s lese-majeste law coming about.
112WATCH is a coalition of people and organizations that value human rights and democracy. The campaign aims to halt the Thai authorities’ escalating use of Article 112, Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which is used to punish, sideline, and silence citizens. In the past five years, at least 130 individuals have been charged with lese-majeste. Its use heightened during the 2020-2021 protests in Thailand. Prominent protest leaders have been judicially harassed, some have faced countless trials and hundreds of years imprisonment. The situation is monstrous. Therefore, in September 2021, I, as a victim of the lese-majeste law myself, decided to set up a coalition of like-minded people who believe the discursive use of lese-majeste law has to stop.
The key objective of 112WATCH is to build an advocacy coalition to produce positive policy change regarding Article 112 in Thailand. The goal is to establish networks among foreign governments and international organizations, especially those working on the issue of human rights and freedom of speech, to make them realize the intensity of the problems with Article 112 in Thailand. By doing so, it will place the problems with Article 112 under a global spotlight. 112WATCH strives to initiate a new dialogue or narrative about the lese-majeste law, based on the belief that a channel of communication is vital to the repeal of this law. The intention is not so much on using international networks to put pressure on Thailand, but rather to create an understanding that the abolition of the lese-majeste law will bring greater benefits to the country, including a widening of the democratic space.
For those of our readers who may not be familiar with the situation in Thailand, explain to us why the monarchy, and the conservative political establishment clustered around it, is so scared about an open discussion of the institution.
Although nominally democratic, Thailand has for decades experienced periodic political interventions of the monarchy and its supporting institutions. In fact, the “network monarchy” has dominated Thai politics so powerfully that it was willing to eliminate any elected governments should they pose a threat to its position of power, mostly with the enthusiastic cooperation of the army through its repeated military coups. In this power structure, the monarchy is located right at the top of its apex. To guarantee its power and authority, the monarchy has been made inviolable through the application of the lese-majeste law.
Lese-majeste, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen, and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Enacted in 1908, its more recent uses have been highly politicized and abused as a political weapon, at first to undermine political opponents and later to attack anyone with different political ideologies. Because it allows anyone to file lese-majeste complaints to the police and because of the severity of the punishment, this law in practice is effective in controlling the behavior of members of Thai society, including the way they discuss issues related to the monarchy.
The past two or so years have seen an unusually open debate about the role of the monarchy in Thai society, and during the large youth-led protests in 2020 and 2021, some activists even called for its reform. How do you explain this recent willingness to break Thailand’s royal taboo?
This new phenomenon is a result of a combination of reasons and factors. First, the reign of King Vajiralongkorn has been starkly different from the previous one. While the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was much revered by Thais due to his own charisma and moral authority, his son Vajiralongkorn has a different style of governance. The lack of charisma and moral authority on the part of Vajiralongkorn has driven the younger generation to call for immediate monarchic reforms. We must understand that this generation has grown up during a time in which the royal propaganda declined, simultaneously with the deteriorating health of Bhumibol. Therefore, they took part in politics without political baggage.
The emergence of social media has also deepened the youths’ confidence in contesting the old kind of politics dominated by non-elective institutions, by learning about the struggles in other societies and the necessity to defend freedom of speech as a legacy of their own generation. As a result, Thai youths today have a different view on questions of “political legitimacy” and “constitutionalism,” as well as “democracy” itself. This explained why they felt they would derive little benefit from the old kind of politics. To liberate themselves from it, they tackled the crux of the problem – the monarchy. This explained the birth of the youth-led protests in 2020 and 2021.
Given the threat of prosecution that hangs over anyone advocating the revocation of Article 112, it is hard to get a sense of the public support for the law – especially given the fact that many people still revere the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Do you sense that there is a significant support in Thailand for the revocation of Article 112?
Some Thais may still revere the late King Bhumibol, but such reverence is eroding as the old era has further departed from the people’s minds and has been replaced with the unpredictable reign of Vajiralongkorn. It is true that the threat of prosecution against those critical of the monarchy continues to loom large, but the excessive use of the lese-majeste law is becoming dangerously counterproductive. Let me ask: if the law is effective, then why are there mounting cases of violation of the law? The growing number of cases is testament to the growing support for the abolition of the lese-majeste law. It has created a new environment in which Thais feel that they are not alone in confronting the “elephant in the room.” One ought to be surprised to learn that the younger generation is very daring in expressing themselves against the lese-majeste law. In my conversation with many of them, they told me that they wanted a better society and future for themselves and that unless they dealt with this taboo now, they would never achieve what they hoped for themselves.
Until a couple of years ago, the Thai government appeared to ease off on lese-majeste prosecutions, reportedly at King Vajiralongkorn’s urging. This self-imposed hiatus was broken in late 2020 and more than 100 people have since been charged with insulting the monarchy, most of them activists and protest leaders. What reputational impact do you think the lese-majeste law has on Thailand, and is this something that the government, and the royal palace itself, are concerned about?
The return of the lese-majeste law in late 2020 is a strong indication that the palace started to feel vulnerable as a result of the public call for immediate royal reforms. To make things worse, there has up to now been no sign from the palace of its willingness to negotiate power with the public. Instead, as evident, the lese-majeste law has been ever so increasingly, and discursively, used against disloyal subjects. The major concern here for the monarchy and its supporters is that they fear the loss of power. And they think of power as a zero-sum game. That explains why they are not willing to negotiate with the protesters. But time is not on their side. The youths today have proven to be more determined than the previous generation. It was the first time we saw a sign “Abolition of 112” at the APEC Summit in Bangkok last month (November). The problem with the lese-majeste law is no longer simply Thailand’s domestic affair but has started to become international.