Activists in Thailand are putting pressure on the country’s main opposition party to pledge to repeal a controversial law that criminalizes criticism of the country’s monarchy if it comes to power.
On Tuesday, eight activists from Thalu Wang, a monarchy reform activist group, met with the Pheu Thai party and said that scrapping Section 112, which carries punishments are up to 15 years in prison for anyone insulting the king, the royal family, or the institution of the monarchy must be a priority. “If the Pheu Thai Party want to win by a landslide, they need to revoke 112,” activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk said ahead of the meeting, according to a Reuters report published Tuesday.
The position of Pheu Thai, Thailand’s largest opposition party, is important. All 16 parties in the governing coalition have vowed not to touch the law, while the ultra-royalist Thai Pakdee party has started a petition to tighten the law.
However, the outcome of the meeting was inconclusive. The Bangkok Post quoted Pheu Thai’s Secretary-General Prasert Jantararuangtong as saying he encouraged public discussion of how the law was being enforced, but did not advocate its alteration or removal. “There are many opinions and polarized views in society on the amendment of this law, which could lead to more conflict,” he told reporters.
The lese-majeste law, as it is commonly known, has been used to prosecute at least 228 people who helped organize large-scale political protests in 2020 and 2021, 10 of whom are in detention, according to the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. The protests were notable both for the youthful profile of many attendees and because they saw young activists breach a long-standing political taboo against any discussion of the role of the monarchy in Thai political and economic life.
The activists’ meeting with Pheu Thai came as two youth activists in pretrial detention on lese-majeste charges entered the 13th day of a hunger strike that they have called to demand the abolition of Section 112.
The mobilization of the law to quell this upsurge of dissent has prompted groups like Thalu Wang (literally “shatter the palace”), which was formed early last year, to make the abolition of Section 112 a core demand.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the law is that anyone can file a complaint of lese-majeste, which the police are then obligated to investigate. Very often this is done by a group of hawk-eyed royalist ultras, who scan social media for posts critical of the monarchy or King Vajiralongkorn. Earlier this week, a 14-year-old girl received a summons to appear at a police station for questioning after a royalist zealot accused her of lese-majeste for taking part in a Bangkok protest last year. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, there have been at least 18 cases of adolescents charged under Section 112 since 2020.
As its official response suggests, there is little political reason for Pheu Thai to throw its weight behind the abolition of Section 112. While it is hard to gauge public opinion on such a sensitive subject, the issue likely only appeals to a relatively small constituency. Politically, it would also play directly into the hands of Pheu Thai’s conservative critics.
Given Pheu Thai’s association with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who served in office from 2001 until his overthrow in a coup in 2006, it has to tread carefully around questions of royal power. During his time in power, Thaksin faced the hostility of the country’s conservative establishment, which feared his massive popularity, particularly in rural parts of Thailand’s north and northeast. Consequently, these conservative elites have spent nearly two decades seeking (unsuccessfully) to erase Thaksin’s influence from Thai politics – an effort that has involved two coups against Thaksinite governments and countless politically motivated court rulings.
Throughout this time, Thaksin and his allies have often been accused of harboring secret republican sympathies, so for Pheu Thai to throw its weight behind the abolition of the law would only reinforce this long-standing claim, and hand the establishment parties an electoral trump. The lese-majeste law may eventually have its day in the court of public opinion – but given the current alignments of Thai politics, that day seems still seems some way off.