Thailand needs to talk about lese majeste law
The sudden suspension of the controversial lese majeste law as a result of His Majesty the King's prerogative is a notable development.
Will it make a difference especially in regard to increasingly noticeable debates about the institution of the monarchy and its relevance in Thai society today?
Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha conveyed a message last week that His Majesty the King asked him not to use Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste law, against anti-monarchists.
He said no-one has been prosecuted for lese majeste violations over the past few years because the King is merciful and told him not to invoke the law.
Section 112 carries a punishment of between three to 15 years imprisonment for those who "defame, insult or threaten the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent".
The law has been subject to criticism by law lecturers and academics who claimed it is flawed by design.
The law not only carries a minimum punishment of three years in jail which makes it impossible for prosecutors to opt for a lighter punishment but it also allows anyone to file a complaint against others without being the damaged party.
Since the coup of 2014, more than 90 people have been prosecuted for lese majeste and 43 have been sentenced, according to the 2018 Bangkok Post article "Lese Majeste Law and Reality".
Only about 4% of those charged in 2016 were acquitted, the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
The news that His Majesty asked the PM to stop using the contentious law is a welcome development but it is decidedly short of the popular demand backed by progressive law lecturers and human rights groups including the United Nations that the law be amended to fix its flaws.
After all, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great made the same remark back in 2005 urging authorities not to invoke Section 112 as it would end up damaging the institution's reputation.
The result was clearly the opposite of what the late king asked for. Thailand saw a surge of lese majeste complaints since 2006, with more than 700 cases filed by the police.
As PM Gen Prayut broke the news about His Majesty urging him to stop using Section 112, he claimed that "distorted" information about the monarchy, which may include abuse and insults had increased.
The PM did not specify what exactly these alleged violations he was referring to were. However, people who follow social media would realise that hashtags and topics concerning the monarchy including a recent one calling for Section 112 to be amended have been openly discussed.
But do all of these "discussions'' -- hundreds of thousands of social media threads -- constitute insults against the King?
This ambiguity could be the biggest challenge concerning the so-called anti-monarchy sentiment that the PM said has been increasing.
The lese majeste law does not define what constitutes an act of defamation, insult or threat against the King.
For overzealous royalists, any mention of the monarchy that is short of glorification could qualify as an insult.
These may include constructive criticism or any attempt to put the highly revered institution in perspective.
An example would be the lese majeste charge against well-known social critic Sulak Sivaraksa who gave a speech deconstructing King Naresuan's famous battle waged on elephants against a Burmese prince in 1593.
Two retired generals filed a complaint against Sulak for defaming King Naresuan, a historical figure from some 400 years ago. Police officially charged Sulak in 2017 before the military tribunal dropped it a year later.
That a well-known scholar could be charged for allegedly insulting an ancient king, a historical figure largely based on legends, reflects not only how problematic the lese majeste law is but also how overly sensitive attempts to "protect" the monarchy have been among certain groups.
This is evident from comments inciting hatred and violence against people viewed as being "anti-monarchists" among far-right groups and media personalities.
As human rights groups noted, the lese majeste law may not have been used over the past few years but other laws have been invoked in its place, such as the Computer Crime Act, and Section 116 of the Criminal Code for charges such as sedition.
Without a clear distinction of what constitutes an insult and what is a fair discussion or criticism of the monarchy, authorities will run into the same problem with the controversial lese majeste law as they try to curb the so-called anti-monarchy sentiment.
Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.