Thailand

Opinion: Lese Majeste is Pushing Thailand Toward a Turning Point

opinion:-lese-majeste-is-pushing-thailand-toward-a-turning-point
Pro-democracy activists Parit Chiwarak and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul report to the police on Jan. 22, 2021, to hear charges of lese majeste and cybercrime pressed against them.

Draconian, disproportionate, anachronistic, outrageous, barbaric, unjust…

Many Thais who are against the lese majeste law have chosen different words to describe it. Many have done so since the new uptick in charges under the law – 55 people are now charged over the past few months.

The sentencing of a 64-year-old woman and former government official, Anchan Preelert, to 43 years in prison on Tuesday for sharing anti-monarchy audio files 29 times sent a shockwave beyond Thailand and was reported widely.

London-based Amnesty International as well as free-speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 issued strong-worded statements.

“In recent weeks, the Thai government has launched numerous new investigations against perceived critics of the monarchy and has moved quickly to conclude cases that have laid dormant for several years. The authorities’ renewed enthusiasm for lese majeste cases marks a dark turn in an already disturbing crackdown on freedom of expression in Thailand,” said Matthew Bugher, head of Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19 in the statement released on Thursday.

In Bangkok, veteran Southeast Asia correspondent for BBC Jonathan Head BBC expressed his own views on Twitter on Friday after the applied bail by Anchan was rejected with the court citing that to allow her to be bailed, would be “causing trauma to those loyal to the Thai monarchy”.

“This sums up the madness of lese majeste, and the warped reasoning it produces. How many royalists were ‘traumatized’ by the podcasts this lady posted? How many even heard them? Does the judge know?” Head’s tweet partly read.

This sums up the madness of lese majeste, and the warped reasoning it produces. How many royalists were ‘traumatized’ by the podcasts this lady posted? How many even heard them? Does the judge know? Any why ‘traumatized’ simply by critical comments about the monarchy? https://t.co/Rc9jTXcL0V

— Jonathan Head (@pakhead) January 22, 2021

The word “madness” was chosen by Head to describe the law. What about you? What word would you choose?

A caveat is that one should not be surprised if some Thais choose words like “just”, “fair”, or “appropriate” for there are royalists and ultra-royalists who think the law is reasonable and needed to protect the monarchy.

And this is where Thailand stands, it’s deeply divided still and no one should assume that there exists a consensus on what to do with the law.

Last week, I was told by Move Forward Party secretary general Chaitawat Tulahorn on the phone that his party will soon push to amend the lese majeste law, along with other libel laws, in parliament. But even that, it would be difficult to expect support from other opposition parties, not to mention the ruling party and its coalition partners.

Demonstrators call for abolition of lese majeste offense in front of the United Nations office in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 2020.

When I asked Pichai Naripthaphan, a deputy leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party about whether his party would support such a move, Pichai sounded cautious and told: “We have yet to discuss the matter. The matter is sensitive.”

The chosen word is “sensitive”. Meanwhile deputy ruling Phalang Pracharath Party Paiboon Nititawan told me last week the party will definitely oppose any move to amend the law. I received a similar reply from Democrat Party spokesman Ramet Rattanachaweng on the same day.

This means Thailand is not at a tipping point where there exists a consensus as to what to do with the law yet.

The tipping point could arrive if more and more end up being charged and imprisoned, however.

On Wednesday, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry filed a lese majeste lawsuit against Progressive Movement leader Thanathorn Juanroongruangkit for questioning the government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan involving Siam Bioscience, a company wholly owned by the Crown, which was given the right to produce vaccines domestically through a contract with UK-based AstraZeneca.

Demonstrators call for abolition of lese majeste offense in front of the United Nations office in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 2020.

This led many to questions: how could a company owned by the Crown be protected under the lese majeste law when the law itself, which carries 15-year maximum imprisonment term, stated that the law protects the King, Queen, Heir apparent and Regent.

When a law ceases to become just in the eyes of enough people, it loses its efficacy. It draws more criticism and not just against the law, but the government and the monarchy as well.

At that point, the use of an unjust law will in fact become counter-productive. (I think it’s already the case.)

Judging from new phenomena like the reported young moviegoers not standing up to pay respect to the Royal Anthem played before film screening at cinemas (and I have seen that with my own eyes more than once over the past months) and the recent persisting public protests against the law, it could be said that Thailand is moving ever closer towards the tipping point.

The tipping point is likely the turning point for not just the controversial lese majeste law but Thailand and the monarchy itself.

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