Whether or not the Move Forward Party (MFP) is denied the chance to take office, its victory at last month’s general election was the closest we’ve come to an opinion poll on how Thais think they should be allowed to talk about their monarchy. For decades, royalist reactionaries have claimed that the royal family is held in such high esteem by the masses that even the slightest whiff of criticism needs to be culled lest the same people hear it, as if affection for this institution could be popped as easily as a balloon. At the same time, they’ve conspired to make sure there can be no accurate assessment of the public’s actual mood towards the monarchy because anything that isn’t obsequious is considered heretical. There is something prophylactic and inoculating in the country’s lese-majeste law.
But last month more than 14.4 million Thais, nearly two-fifths of the electorate, turned up and voted for a party that explicitly says it wants to reform or abolish lese-majeste. Royalists cannot now claim the electorate was unaware of the MFP’s position on this, that it was a tertiary pledge discreetly slipped in at a late stage. One struggles to find any public mention of the MFP that didn’t also include its views on this matter. And for months royalists have been calling for the MFP’s dissolution solely because of its stance on lese-majeste. As such, those same royalist reactionaries now have to face the situation where they made the MFP’s campaign for lese-majeste reform the cautionary tale of the election, yet they now have the results in black and white.
Granted, one could argue that 62 percent of the electorate didn’t vote for a party so explicitly tied to lese-majeste reform, although some within the second-placed Pheu Thai Party (which won 28 percent) have said they’re open to a parliamentary debate on reform. And, of course, not everyone who voted for the MFP agreed with the party’s call to abolish or reform lese-majeste. But neither can it be said that all of them disagreed with it. In fact, because of the degree of controversy surrounding this most taboo issue, it could be reasoned that those voters knew exactly what they were voting for.
This deserves to be recognized as an achievement of the party and of the Thai people, even by those who now fear that the MFP will abandon its radical take on lese-majeste in order to enter government. If MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat wants to become prime minister, the MFP and its eight-party coalition need to find 63 extra votes from lawmakers (mostly conservatives and royalists) before parliament reconvenes on August 3 to elect a prime minister.
Although necessary, lese-majeste reform isn’t the most important task ahead of the MFP. Nor should Article 112 abolitionists consider their cause abandoned if change doesn’t come as early as they want. The MFP-led coalition’s plans to draft a new and genuinely democratic constitution, and reverse the country’s extreme centralization of administrative power around the military, are prerequisites for social or cultural reform. If one wants genuine progress on free speech, including around the monarchy, then the primary task is to make sure the military never returns to political power. The coalition could kick the matter to an MFP lawmaker to bring before parliament at a later date. A compromise could be reached: a public referendum on whether lese-majeste laws should be (a) left as they are; (b) reformed to reduce their scope and punishments; or (c) abolished. (A binary choice between continuity or change would be less meaningful.)
But it’s more than just about legislation. This sort of reform is cultural before it’s legal. One could argue that the MFP would never have won last month’s election had the 2020-2021 youth-led protests not taken place, setting the stage for a public debate about lese-majeste that was long overdue. Those protests kicked the issue into the public square when it had previously been talked about in hushed remarks between friends or amongst academics. That won’t now be undone, regardless of what happens with Pita and the MFP. And the bottom-up nature of this activism needs to be remembered.
A gradualist approach isn’t wrong, either. It’s feasible, as I pointed out in a recent column here, that one could have the situation where lese-majeste remains on the books but it is amended so that a maximum punishment is a paltry fine and a slap on the wrist. An important step would be to amend the way in which people are accused of the lese-majeste heresy, which is currently that anyone could accuse another person. Or, indeed, an MFP-led government could make it known to judges its preferences for minimal sentences in future lese-majeste cases. An MFP-led government could subsidize lawyers for defendants accused of lese-majeste, ensuring these things are adjudicated properly in the courts. To mix my metaphors, what is needed for this estuary of debate to turn into a sea change is for people to realize that the sky won’t fall if every perceived insult of the monarchy isn’t met with the most vicious of repression.