Orawan “Bam” Phupong hugs a supporter at the Phue Thai Party campaign event in Ayutthaya on 23 March 2023. (Photo: Pratachai English / Twitter)

Thailand’s Lèse-majesté Law: A Subtle Referendum in the Upcoming Elections?


Political parties which tout the need for more democracy in Thailand have shied away from aggressively promoting amendments to the kingdom’s lese-majeste law. However, the law’s impact on generational and ideological divides remains in motion.

Thai politics has come full circle, with the upcoming election shaping up to be another power grab between representatives of the country’s conservative establishment and the Shinawatra family. However, a subtle yet unprecedented referendum is slowly emerging as two young activists push political parties to take a stance on the kingdom’s lèse-majesté law.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon (21) and Orawan “Bam” Phupong (23), who are facing royal defamation charges, have been making surprise appearances at campaign rallies to pressure political parties to adopt a position on Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. This law carries a sentence of three to fifteen years per count of defamation, insult, or threat to the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent.

Earlier this year, the pair asked for their bail to be revoked and staged a 52-day hunger strike to push for judicial reform, the release of political prisoners, and the repeal of Article 112 and Article 116, the law on sedition. These demands were made in response to the alarming increase in the number of people facing lèse-majesté charges and prosecutions since the youth-led movements calling for royal reform began in 2020.

Tawan and Bam’s efforts have succeeded in forcing political parties across the spectrum to convey their stance on Article 112. Yet, even parties claiming to be on the side of democracy have been reluctant to campaign aggressively in favour of amending the law.

Pheu Thai, which is expected to win the most seats in the upcoming polls, has mostly refrained from advocating for the amendment or repeal of Article 112. The party stressed that parliamentary debates are necessary to peacefully resolve the polarising issue. The party’s de facto leader-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra sees the problem as mostly rooted in uneven enforcement of the law rather than the law itself.

The Move Forward Party (MFP), which previously proposed a bill amending Article 112, is now revamping its effort with a policy to defend fair and honest criticisms, reduce the jail term associated with Article 112, and restrict its usage by designating the Bureau of the Royal Household as the sole complainant. However, the party has not heeded the activists’ call to prioritise the repeal of Article 112 as a policy goal, nor has it campaigned heavily to amend the law.

Tawan and Bam’s efforts have succeeded in forcing political parties across the spectrum to convey their stance on Article 112. Yet, even parties claiming to be on the side of democracy have been reluctant to campaign aggressively in favor of amending the law.

The careful manoeuvres may be interpreted as an attempt by the parties to publicly distance themselves from the monarchy reform movement. In essence, this would ensure their political survival. Pheu Thai may be treading lightly in order to avoid unnecessary backlash from its ideologically diverse supporters, potential coalition partners (the conservative Palang Pracharath Party is reported to be one), and conservative opponents, as well as institutions that have the power to veto not only its rise to power but also Thaksin’s return to Thailand.

The MFP, on the other hand, may be taking precautions to avoid the same fate as its predecessor, the Future Forward Party, by refraining from activities that could lead to its dissolution at the hands of referee institutions that have members who were appointed under military rule. These institutions, namely the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission of Thailand, are expected to hold accountable any political party that strongly advocates for amending or repealing Article 112, charging them with violating election campaign regulations.

If this interpretation is correct, then the parties’ reluctance 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.

Yet, there is another interpretation: these parties have failed to seize the opportunity created when the taboo about discussing the role of the monarchy in public was broached. This interpretation suggests that 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.

In such a system, democracy is characterised by participation without contestation — parties are allowed to play the election game, but only if they do not challenge the established traditions, norms, and notions of legitimacy that, according to the official royalist-nationalist narrative, form the foundation of the Thai imagined community.

Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, the leader of the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, which supports General Prayut as its candidate for prime minister, has now assumed the role of the harbinger of the old system’s return. He declared, “Thailand is the land for patriots and the land is holy with the monarchy serving as the pillar of the country … if you don’t like it, please go to another place. No one is stopping you. Go now. Any country you like, you can go and stay there. But Thailand will be like this forever.” If the UTN forms the government, Pirapan has vowed to “take decisive action against chung chart (nation haters) and those who wish to overthrow the royal institution.”

Will the election provide an opening for the small but growing demand for change, particularly among younger generations of Thais like Tawan and Bam? Or will it signify the political exclusion of this demand and affirm the suspension of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association under rule by legal exceptions, rather than the rule of law? Much remains to be seen, but it is clear that the lèse-majesté law has become a central issue that will shape the generational and ideological divides in political attitudes, even if its fate does not appear to be hanging in the balance.


Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a PhD Researcher at Northwestern University.