The trial and conviction of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk has once again put Thailand in an uncomfortable spotlight. At home, there is concern about how lese majeste cases are decided, prosecuted and punished. Outside the country, Thailand is increasingly criticised as a nation where authorities trample on the media and on freedom of expression. Action should be taken to address and correct both these views.
A major problem in addressing the very real flaws in prosecuting and punishing lese majeste offences is the passion that the law brings to any discussion. There can be no updates to lese majeste legislation so long as this continues. Certain groups in the country inflame the debate with baseless charges, which in essence accuse those wishing to amend lese majeste laws of lack of patriotism, or worse.
In this, advocates of legal change too often play into the hands of the knee-jerk ultra-nationalists.
The key to any reasonable amendment of the Criminal Code cannot proceed rationally from simple opposition to a law. The question is what the country needs, and what best serves the nation and all its institutions.
On this, there is no disagreement among Thais. All citizens want to protect the national institutions. Protection of the monarchy, in particular His Majesty the King, is the aim of all citizens. No rational person or group has called for abolishing laws which protect His Majesty and the royal family. So any discussion of legal change can start on level ground: The purpose of a lese majeste law must be to protect the monarchy and the royal family. They are otherwise defenceless against libel, slander, defamation, and against attacks on the system of democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
Reasonable people also can agree that Section 112 of the Criminal Code is out of date and deserves careful and factual study. For example, the purpose of Section 112 is to protect the highest institution, but it is obvious that the law is sometimes used by unscrupulous people in a political manner to harass those with whom they disagree. An amended Section 112 would cause lese majeste charges to be brought only in cases where legal experts were certain that the offence was indeed against the monarchy _ not against a political ideology.
In addition to Section 112, there is the Computer Crime Act (CCA) of 2007. Even more than the Criminal Code, the CCA, enacted by a rubber-stamp legislature under the military junta, is used as a political weapon. There are many documented cases where authorities abused their duty to accuse and intimidate alleged offenders based on views expressed in online commentary. It is unacceptable that a law designed to combat online crime is being used to provide even harsher punishment than that allowed by the nation's Criminal Code itself.
Politicians fear to address abuses of the lese majeste law. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised during her election campaign to address such misuse, but has been silent ever since.
Her predecessors were all equally silent. They believe that even to suggest an amendment to Section 112 could be political suicide.
They are wrong. Lese majeste is a sensitive subject, but the current law has brought divisions in this country and finger-pointing, and criticism from the world community.
Section 112 is a special law about the most special high institution.
That is exactly why it should be carefully, openly brought up for change to make it relevant to the current situation.