In a pivotal moment on January 31, 2024, the Move Forward Party (MFP) faced a daunting setback as their attempt to amend Thailand’s Article 112 encountered a resounding rejection from the Constitutional Court. The court, in a stark declaration, deemed the proposed changes a violation of the charter, accusing the MFP of attempting to “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the king as a head of state.” This ruling not only dealt a blow to the party’s reformist agenda but also ignited a cascade of broader questions about the trajectory of political and civil liberties in Thailand.
Over the past years, the Move Forward Party has garnered widespread support through its bold advocacy for reforms in both the military and monarchy. Their ambitious promises range from scrapping the military-drafted constitution to ending conscription and reducing the size of the armed forces. However, it is their commitment to revising the strict lèse-majesté law that has thrust them into the heart of a once-taboo conversation, transforming it into a focal point of public discourse.
The party’s rise in popularity can be attributed to its bold stance on challenging the status quo, particularly regarding the monarchy’s role in Thai society. This movement gained momentum as tens of thousands of young activists rallied across Thailand in 2020 and 2021, demanding constraints on the king’s powers. The MFP’s advocacy for reform in the lèse-majesté law resonates with a generation eager to address longstanding issues surrounding democratic freedom and political dissent.
Delving into the intricacies of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law and the recent challenges faced by the Move Forward Party will further highlight that the struggle for political expression goes beyond the courtroom. It is a multifaceted battle that intertwines legal reform, democratic principles, and the aspirations of a generation determined to redefine the boundaries of civic discourse. In exploring these dynamics, the goal is to unravel the complexity that shrouds the lèse-majesté law, shedding light on its implications for Thailand’s political landscape and the future of democratic expression in the country.
How the Law is Used as a Political Weapon
For over a century, Thailand’s Article 112, known as the lèse-majesté law, has shaped the nation’s legal landscape. Originally enacted in 1908 and reinforced in 1976, the law criminalizes acts of defamation, insults, or threats against the monarchy, wielding considerable influence with penalties ranging from three to 15 years of imprisonment. With the subsequent integration of the Computer Crime Act in 2007, this stringent legal framework has extended its reach into both physical and digital spaces, sparking the further struggle for democratic freedom.
The lèse-majesté law has long raised serious concerns because of its severe penalties, which can be likened to crimes like manslaughter and kidnapping. Even in minor cases, the imposition of a minimum three-year prison term is considered excessive, creating a situation where courts are compelled to apply the harsh penalty.
When viewed within the framework of “Offences relating to the Security of the Kingdom,” there is potential for its interpretation and enforcement to suppress dissent under the guise of national security.
Moreover, the absence of a clear definition of what constitutes an insult to the monarchy. This lack of clarity provides authorities with broad interpretative powers, effectively turning the law into a weapon against political opponents. Its vague boundaries allow for arbitrary enforcement, fostering an environment where individuals, particularly those critical of the government, can be targeted and silenced. The lack of clear parameters of the law does not only compromise the principles of justice but also raises concerns about the erosion of democratic rights and political dissent in the name of safeguarding the royal institution.
To exacerbate the situation, lèse-majesté complaints can be initiated by anyone against anyone, triggering formal police investigations and resulting in prolonged pre-trial detentions. A disconcerting trend, highlighted by the Thai Lawyer for Human Rights, reveals that between 18 July 2020 until 31 December 2023, a staggering 262 people faced 287 lawsuits under Article 112. These numbers starkly emphasize the alarming impact of the law on individuals seeking to exercise their fundamental right to expression.
Examining recent cases further illuminates the profound impact of the lèse-majesté law on the suppression of political expression and how it is weaponized against dissidents and political opposition.
The Supreme Court upheld an Appeal Court order, on June 15, 2023, banning the video of the former leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit that criticized the government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement. The court justified the ban, citing concerns that the clip’s comments might impact national security. Despite Thanathorn’s appeal and the opportunity for a new trial, the Supreme Court supported the ban, asserting potential risks to the monarchy without evaluating whether the video exercised freedom of speech to criticize the government. This incident follows Thanathorn’s 2022 indictment under the royal defamation law for the same video about scrutinizing the government’s vaccination deal involving Siam Bioscience.
On September 20, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a severe blow to former Move Forward Party MP Pannika Wanich by permanently banning her from politics and any political post for life. The charge, initially filed by Srisuwan Janya in June 2019, accused Pannika of royal defamation stemming from a picture she posted online 13 years ago that was deemed disrespectful to the monarchy. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) found her guilty in February of the following year, leading to the Supreme Court’s decision. This draconian move comes amidst heightened scrutiny of individuals perceived to be critical of the monarchy, exemplified by Srisuwan’s relentless pursuit of Pannika, who faced allegations of mocking the late King Bhumibol in a 2010 graduation photo.
Rukchanok Srinork, an opposition lawmaker from Move Forward Party, was sentenced on Dec. 13, 2023 to six years for messages deemed insulting to the royal family on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter. The charges centered on tweets from 2021, one inviting people to wear black on the king’s birthday and another questioning the monarchy’s ties to COVID-19 vaccines.
In a striking and unprecedented verdict on Jan. 18, 2024, a Thai court handed a 50-year prison sentence to Mongkol Thirakot, a Chiang Rai activist, for criticizing the monarchy on his personal Facebook account. This record-breaking sentence, the longest under Thailand’s stringent royal insult laws, follows a trend of heightened use of controversial legislation against pro-democracy protesters, seen by critics as a tactic to quash dissent. Initially facing a 28-year sentence, Mongkol’s penalty was extended to 50 years after being found guilty on 11 more counts during the appeal process.
Independence of the Thai Constitutional Court
The Constitutional Court of Thailand has faced substantial criticism, especially since the 2014 coup, raising concerns about its independence. Comprising nine judges, the court is perceived as a tool to uphold military influence. After orchestrating a coup, the military nullified the existing constitution. Despite this, the junta permitted the Constitutional Court to remain and then drafted a replacement constitution. During this time, the military implemented measures to interfere in the selection process of Constitutional Court judges, compromising their independence and autonomy.
In 2015, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), dominated by members who are from the military and police, established due to the dissolution of the bicameral parliament by the coup, appointed two judges after the terms of the former judges ended. The appointment of 250 senators in 2019 raised eyebrows, as all nine judges required approval from these senators, who were not elected through the usual democratic process but appointed by the military, with a significant majority (194 out of 250 senators) handpicked by the coup themselves.
Following the senators’ appointment in 2019, six of the nine judges were appointed by these senators, shaping the court’s composition. With the two judges that were appointed by the NLA earlier in 2015, this made 8 out of 9 judges being appointed under the coup’s mechanism. The judges are the following:
- Worawit Kangsasitiam (Appointed in 2014 before the coup)
- Nakharin Mektrairat (Appointed by the NLA in 2015)
- Punya Udchachon (Appointed by the NLA in 2015)
- Udom Sittiwirattham (Appointed by the Senators)
- Wiroon Sangtian (Appointed by the Senators)
- Chiranit Havanond (Appointed by the Senators)
- Noppadon Theppitak (Appointed by the Senators)
- Bunjongsak Wongprachaya (Appointed by the Senators)
- Udom Rathamarit (Appointed by the Senators)
The State of Civic and Human Rights Spaces After the Ruling
The ruling of the Constitutional Court significantly set a precedent over the future amendment of the lèse-majesté law. As campaigning to amend the law is equal to overthrowing the democratic regime of the country with king as head of the state, it poses a significant challenge to amend the law in the future.
The ruling against MFP not only reshapes the political landscape but also raises significant concerns regarding the compatibility of Thailand’s democratic principles with the monarchy. It also poses a question whether criticizing the law would also be considered as overthrowing of the system or not. The restriction on expressing views related to Article 112 establishes a dangerous precedent, potentially stifling vital discussions on critical issues and severely impinging on civil liberties
Furthermore, the apparent lack of independence of the Constitutional Court, exemplified by its controversial composition and suspected ties to the military, has profound implications for civil liberties and human rights in the country. Following the recent ruling, doubts are cast on the court’s autonomy, its ability to safeguard fundamental rights, and its capacity to prioritize the public interest over those in power.
The lèse-majesté law, particularly when combined with the Computer Crime Act, poses a significant threat to digital rights in Thailand. Its broad interpretation, coupled with severe penalties and its potential use as a political weapon, fosters an environment of fear and self-censorship, severely limiting public discourse. The recent court ruling serves as a sobering reminder of the ongoing struggle against this draconian law and its enduring consequences for civil liberties and human rights in the country.
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BBC News. “Lese-majeste Explained: How Thailand Forbids Insult of Its Royalty.” BBC News, 6 Oct. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29628191.
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