It’s unlikely that the Move Forward party will win May’s election in Thailand, let alone be able to form a government afterward, even though it’s not doing too badly in the run-up (it’s currently attracting between 16-32 percent of the vote, according to which opinion poll you read). The ballot looks set to be a power grab between the conservative establishment and the Shinawatra family. Nonetheless, a decent show from the youthful radicals at Move Forward next month ought to move the needle on debates around the monarchy.
For instance, on March 24, according to the Straits Times, supporters leapt onto the stage at a party rally with posters calling on voters to “abolish” or “amend” the country’s lèse-majesté law. Pita Limjaroenrat, the party leader, reportedly stuck a sticker in the “abolish” section of the poster. But apologizing to the crowd, he then said his party would first try to amend the law to reform lèse-majesté law. If that wasn’t possible, he said, then it would fight for the abolition of the law.
Of course, not all Move Forward Party supporters are motivated solely by this issue, but it remains the case that a significant number of Thais are soon expected to vote for a party that has remained open to supporting the abolitionist cause on lèse-majesté and made reform part of its manifesto (although some of its members have backtracked on that front, chiefly not to alienate anti-coup voters who don’t agree with that view and because it doesn’t want to be forcibly dissolved like its predecessor, the Future Forward Party).
The “Abolish 112” campaign, a reference to Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, appears to be gaining ground. And it appears to be moving from the academy onto the streets, especially among those who joined the demonstrations that began in 2020. The protesters at the time offered a 10-point demand for royal reform. As one newspaper put it in November 2021: “Thousands of Thais gathered at a major intersection in central Bangkok… to demand ‘free speech for all’ by calling for the abolition of the country’s controversial lese majeste law.”
In response, the Constitutional Court ruled the same month that even calls for royal reform are seditious.
The more probable victors of next month’s election, the party of the Shinawatra family, which includes two former prime ministers ousted by the military, have steered clear of this issue, although they, too, have seemingly come out in favor of a debate around reform. The Pheu Thai Party’s secretary-general, Prasert Jantararuangtong, said in January that public discussion of the law is good but any attempt to amend it “could lead to more conflict.”
In October 2021, however, the chief of the PTP’s strategic committee, Chaikasem Nitisiri, said in a statement that the party supports pushing for a reform proposal to be debated in parliament. But it seemingly u-turned two days later when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – whose daughter is running as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate – said the lèse-majesté law was not the problem, only its interpretation and enforcement.
That, then, leaves us with two avenues of thought. One insinuates that there is nothing wrong with lèse-majesté laws per se, but what is wrong about the situation in Thailand is how they are used: wantonly or tyrannically. It’s possible, indeed, to imagine lèse-majesté staying on the books but with major reforms that strip it of any controversy. That could include a provision limiting the standing to bring a case – today, anyone can accuse someone else of the crime. Or the punishment could be altered to, say, a $1,000 fine or a non-prison sentence. (A Move Forward politician has suggested reducing it to a maximum one-year jail sentence, down from the maximum 15 years it currently carries.) That would appear to protect the honor of the institution while not ruining the lives of people who believe they have the right to talk about it.
There’s a decent argument to be made that supporters of the monarchy ought to also favor such reform. Their side wouldn’t benefit if a growing number of Thais start to see this all as zero-sum: that abolition of lèse-majesté is the only means of ending its draconian use.
Neither would supporters of the monarchy benefit if questions about lèse-majesté become internationalized. Most Western governments, even when they’re hectoring Bangkok on its human rights abuses, tend to agree with Thaksin: the problem isn’t the law, only its application. But on March 20, U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey and Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip, tried to introduce a resolution that would call on the Thai government to “repeal and cease the promulgation of laws and decrees that are used to censor online content and speech related to the electoral process, including Thailand’s… overbroad and vague lèse-majesté law.” A number of European parliamentarians have tried to introduce amendments to a report on an EU-Thailand partnership agreement that, in the words of one, would call on Bangkok to “repeal its lèse-majesté provisions,” as I wrote about recently.
Those who take the reformist view can point to the fact that numerous liberal democracies, including several in Europe, also have lèse-majesté laws, but their application isn’t as egregious or politicized as is the case in Thailand. One might say this is the consequentialist stance. In other words, all that matters is how the law is employed.
But a goodly number of Thais, it seems, are moved by the idealistic stance, which is that the lèse-majesté law is wrong in itself. For the most part, they see reform as a dead-end path, so abolition is the only way. But it also questions whether another human being, by happenchance of birth, is infallible and unquestionable, and why an institution purportedly so strong and adored needs to be defended on every occasion against the obscure Facebook post.
Abolitionists and reformers may yet be disappointed. Move Forward’s and especially Pheu Thai’s more recent unwillingness to speak clearly on lèse-majesté when campaigning could indicate the “Thai political system is on the verge of backsliding to its original state – indifferent, dismissive, or even hostile to any attempts to venture beyond traditional ideological fault lines by involving the monarchy in politics,” Napon Jatusripitak wrote this week in Fulcrum. And it could be a sign, he wrote, that “these parties have failed to seize the opportunity created when the taboo about discussing the role of the monarchy in public was broached.”
On the other hand, he added, the parties’ reluctance to squarely address lèse-majesté maybe “reflects strategic considerations, not apathy. They can be expected to push harder for change, but only once there is a shift in the balance that makes it politically expedient to do so.”
Much depends on the results of next month’s election. But take note of the comment of one protestor from 2021: “Basically, Article 112 is like a blasphemy law.” One can, after all, reform a blasphemy law to reduce the punishments, but it remains the case that either something is blasphemous or it isn’t. And once you decide, by yourself or as a society, that something isn’t blasphemous, it’s near impossible to make it sacrosanct again.