Section 112's return adds fuel to protest fire

Section 112's return adds fuel to protest fire

The government's re-embracing of the lese majeste law has been marked by contention and dishonesty.

How could such an ignoble path lead to a graceful end?

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha ate his own words.

He could also expose His Majesty the King, who earlier wished to show "mercy" by instructing him not to use the controversial law, as being complicit in the turnaround.

Back in June this year, the PM issued a warning to people involved in what he labelled an anti-monarchy movement.

Gen Prayut told reporters, however, that the King had told him not to use Section 112 of the criminal code against them.

If that is the case, how should the latest series of lese majeste prosecutions be interpreted?

That Gen Prayut disobeyed the King? Or has the King had a change of heart?

The first scenario would correspond to what prominent social critic Sulak Sivaraksa said at the rally in front of SCB headquarters.

Apparently trying to shield the monarchy from the political conflict, Mr Sulak slammed Gen Prayut for going against the King's instructions.

The perception is still not good for either the King or the PM.

For the monarch, the notion that the PM could simply ignore his wishes could cast doubt on His Majesty.

For the PM, to proceed with legal action despite royal forewarning could be seen as belittling the monarchy.

That is probably why Mr Sulak called on PM Gen Prayut to quit immediately to prevent the perception from further tarnishing the throne.

The PM's response to Mr Sulak's accusation made the situation even more awkward.

In what can only be seen as an attempt to shift the blame, Gen Prayut said it was not him who applied the lese majeste law against protesters but "state officials", apparently referring to the police.

Do these "officers" appreciate working for a leader like this who ducks to put them in the line of fire as soon as he feels the heat?

The bad news is the first scenario could be far better than the other one.

There is no denying that we now live in a time when the monarchy is coming under more and more scrutiny. Calls for reform are getting louder. It's fair to say that doubt is also increasing over what its role should be within a democratic regime.

We have seen debates on TV whether the Privy Purse and the Crown Property Bureau should be one and the same -- something which was unthinkable in the past.

A rally was also held last Sunday at the 11th Infantry Regiment, the King's Guard, which put the spotlight on whether it's appropriate for HM to command a "personal" army.

Since Gen Prayut has always shown utmost reverence to the institution, it is almost unimaginable that he would dare to act against the King's advice and invoke the lese majeste law on his own.

This scenario would be more damaging to the institution. And truth be told, despite PM Gen Prayut's attempt to pass the buck, the hypocrisy of it all makes that version not very credible.

The last application of the lese majeste law before this latest series was against activist Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa for sharing a BBC Thai biography of the King in 2016.

The case exemplified all that is wrong with the draconian law which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail.

Jatupat was found guilty of lese majeste and sentenced to five years in prison even though the original report was not deemed defamatory nor prosecuted. He was also the only person charged even though a few thousand people shared the same report.

So what constitutes the crime of lese majeste? It remains unclear how authorities define acts that "defame, insult or threaten" the King, Queen, Heir-apparent or Regent.

The mere sharing of a BBC online report profiling the King? An attempt to question his role and responsibility? A discussion about his personal assets and those of the Crown Property Bureau?

Past lese majeste cases included a failure to stand up for the royal anthem, pointing a finger at the sky during a political speech, translating a published biography about HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great and a discussion about King Naresuan, a historical figure from the Ayutthaya period, filed against none other than Mr Sulak himself.

The lese majeste law has always been criticised as "problematic" and known more as a tool to silence critics than a respectable and fair piece of legislation.

That the Prayut government is using it against protesters calling for reform of the monarchy only adds fuel to their fire.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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