Lese majeste law takes centre stage
The infamous lese majeste law, or Section 112 of the Criminal Code, appears to have taken centre stage in the escalating political conflict since the Feb 9 indictment of four leading members of the pro-reform Ratsadon group by public prosecutors and the four's detention at the Bangkok Remand Prison on the same day after the Criminal Court rejected their bail requests.
The detention of Parit "Penguin" Chivarak, Arnon Nampa, Somyot Prueksakasemsook and Patiwat Saraiyaem sparked protests by their followers that evening at the Pathumwan Skywalk.
Another high-profile protest took place on Saturday when protesters rallied at Bangkok's Democracy Monument and wrapped the monument with a huge red cloth written with messages condemning the draconian law, demanding its abolition, before they marched to the City Pillar Shrine to pay homage to the shrine.
They were, however, blocked by police, a move that resulted in a minor scuffle during in which stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were hurled at the police by the protesters. Before dispersing, a protest leader warned of a larger protest within a week.
In wake of the escalating political confrontation between opponents and proponents of the lese majeste law, the opposition Move Forward Party proposed to parliament a set of five bills, one of which is to amend the infamous law.
The proposed amendment does not seek to abolish the archaic legislation, but to reduce the prison penalties from a minimum of three up to a maximum of 15 years, to just one year plus a maximum fine of 300,000 baht for an insult made to the king, and six months in jail and/or a 200,000 baht in case of the queen, heir apparent and the regent.
It also seeks to make the Bureau of the Royal Household the only authority which can file lese majeste complaints with the police instead of anybody as in the case currently. The change is to prevent abuse or misuse of the legislation.
There is, however, an exemption to the prison penalty if alleged defamation is proven to be true and in the public interest, but not alleged defamation concerning someone's lifestyle or private matters.
The opposition party also seeks to remove the lese majeste law, or Section 112, from the chapter regarding offences against national security to a new chapter regarding offences against the honour of the king, the queen, the heir apparent and the regent.
The Move Forward party's proposed amendment to the lese majeste law, which is almost similar to the one proposed more than a decade ago by the Nitirat group, represents a compromise approach between the two extremes of the political divide -- the Ratsadon group, which calls for the abolition of the law, and the pro-royalist Thai Pakdee, which rejects any attempt to amend the law.
Countering the Move Forward Party's move, Thai Pakdee de facto leader Warong Dechgitvigrom submitted a list of more than 100,000 signatories opposing any amendment to the law to the Senate Speaker.
The group's rationale for the retention of the law in its existing form is that the law is harmless to people who do not offend the monarchy -- so why be afraid of the law.
The group also accused the Move Forward Party of harbouring a hidden agenda against the monarchy.
Likewise, proponents of the tough Sharia law can rightly defend cutting off the hand of a thief as appropriate and justified; and why be afraid of the tough law if you do not steal in the first place?
Given the current political atmosphere and stiff resistance from the royalist group, the Move Forward (or Kao Klai) Party's amendment push stands a slim chance of success.
The party can't even get the full support from its MPs for the move as nine of them have refused to sign the petition for the amendment.
However, instead of rejecting the amendment bill outright, MPs might do well to open their minds without political prejudice, and carefully analyse the proposed amendment.
Does the idea of reducing the prison penalty make sense?
Is the 3–15 year prison penalty proportionate to the offence of defaming the monarchy?
Shouldn't we move forward to make the law look at least more humane and help improve the image of the monarchy in the eyes of the international community rather than sticking to our typical argument of "mind your own business"?
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.