Thailand’s tough lèse majesté laws do not appear to have stifled expressions of resistance against the monarchy. Perhaps a review and relook of the laws surrounding perceived offenses to the monarchy is in order.
The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is facing challenges to its ideological legitimacy, as members of Thailand’s younger generations increasingly break the taboo on speaking out against the monarchy. Tough laws appear to have gained little traction in controlling such expressions.
For the Thai establishment elite, the royal institution embodies righteousness and is an essential part of the national spirit. After all, the blue in the tri-colour national flag represents the monarchy. The constitution upholds the place of the crown at the top of a hierarchical society, saying that “the king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.”
Former Army chief Prayut Chan-ocha justified the military coup staged under his leadership in May 2014 as a move to secure the revered royal institution during the critical transition period from the reign of King Bhumibol to that of his son and heir King Vajiralongkorn. The coup came amid political turmoil triggered by a long series of elite-sponsored and military-backed street protests against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates.
Since the September 2006 coup, the hand of the palace was obvious during the long crusade against Thaksin and his rank-and-file supporters, who are largely from the country’s lower income groups. In order to protect the crown from criticism over such a political involvement, authorities arrested and charged more than 700 people under Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law during the period between the 2006 and 2014 coups. Section 112 of the Penal Code defines insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent as a crime with tough sentence of three to fifteen years imprisonment.
Many of those charged under Section 112 have been young activists who apparently have had no connection with Thaksin or his camp. The peak in lèse majesté charges came after Prayut’s 2014 coup. In total, 99, 116 and 101 individuals were prosecuted under the law in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively. In a landmark development in June, Prayut disclosedthat the King had asked him not to use the lèse majesté law against anti-monarchists. The Prime Minister said that no one has been prosecuted in the past few years.
While the new monarch’s accession to the throne in late 2016 went smoothly, charges of offending the monarchy continued. Local media and human rights defenders have reported that, since 2014, nine activists charged with lèse majesté have sought refuge in Cambodia and Laos and have subsequently gone missing. The corpses of two of them were found in the Mekong River in January 2019.
Forty-five people were charged with lèse majesté between January and September 2017, the first year of the new reign. But no one has been charged under this law since, even though criticism of the monarchy has been widely seen in social media in the past few years.
The latest forced disappearance came in early June 2020, when activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was seen in surveillance camera footage being whisked away by unidentified men from the street in Phnom Penh. The 37-year-old man fled Thailand in 2014, when he was accused of violating an order to present himself before the National Council for Peace and Order junta. He was not charged with offending the monarchy. Nevertheless, Wanchalearm’s disappearance has ignited protests among a small group of students, who have raised questions about the role of Thai security forces in the abduction and demanded, via social media, the abolition of the lèse majesté law.
It remains unclear if Wanchalearm’s disappearance has any connection to the monarchy. Prime Minister Prayut has issued a veiled threat to students and activists protesting the disappearance, and called on them not to criticise the monarchy. Otherwise, they could face legal and social sanctions. Speaking in this context, Prayut said, that with Article 112 in place, Thailand “did not have many problems.” The article is not being used because “the king has kindly asked us not to use it.”
Forty-five people were charged with lèse majesté between January and September 2017, the first year of the new reign. But no one has been charged under this law since, even though criticism of the monarchy has been widely seen in social media in the past few years. A Bangkok Post columnist has opined that the non-use of the lèse majesté law is a “welcome development.” But she added that there needed to be a clear distinction between what constitutes an insult and what is “fair discussion and criticism” of the monarchy. David Streckfuss, an American scholar, noted that the ensuing debate about the lese majeste law had opened up the space for discussion about Article 112, this including a public acknowledgement about the law’s problems. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist scholar who has had run-ins with the lèse majesté law, had a rare audience with the King in December 2017. The King asked Sulak about the lèse majesté law, and Sulak replied that the law was often abused and ended up tarnishing the monarchy. Shortly after the meeting, a lèse majestécharge against Sulak was dropped. The King had reportedly written letters to the Supreme Court and Attorney General requesting that no further cases be accepted – and effectively removed a tool used by the military and the Bangkok elite against their critics.
It could also be said that those who are seen to have offended the monarchy can be arrested under other laws, notably the amended Computer Crimes Act of 2017 and the law on sedition. For example, a 20-year-old student was nabbed from his house in Chonburi province in February this year. He was charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act for posting messages about the monarchy via his Twitter account. In April, a psychiatric patient committed suicide after being sentenced to three years imprisonment under the same act for posting criticism of the monarchy online.
The authorities have reportedly warned Thais against offending the monarchy. Strangely enough, the number of challenges to the royal institution appear in many ways to be on the rise. It appears that the use of threats and warnings has only created fear and led to accumulated grievances. Perhaps a relook and review of the country’s tough laws surrounding perceived offenses to the monarchy is in order.
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.