Section 112 must change with the times
A lack of crucial support from the Pheu Thai Party for amending Section 112 -- the infamous lese majeste law -- means parliament will not be as instrumental in such a change as was previously hoped. Yet the amendment move, pushed by new political forces, has gained momentum.
Right-wing conservative factions will have to learn, albeit with a sense of disappointment, that demands to change Section 112 will remain a key point in the drive to reform the monarchy, in what appears to be a long-haul political endeavour.
The calls to modify Section 112 are nothing new. They surfaced in the latter period of King Rama IX's reign, and have now become predominant.
In 2012, a group of Thammasat University academics who gathered under the name of Nitirat spearheaded a similar campaign. With more than 26,000 signatures, the group submitted an amendment draft to parliament but then-House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranand rejected it, citing technicalities.
The move by the Nitirat group was driven by escalating colour-coded political conflicts, stemming largely from the 2006 coup. The appointment of a privy councillor as prime minister triggered a series of debates about the role of the monarchy, especially its intervention in politics. A number of people were charged with Section 112 offences.
After the latest coup staged by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, more than 60 people were arrested and charged with lese majeste during 2014-2015. The number of offenders has since increased significantly. Yet, as the government was instructed to refrain from using the draconian law, there were no new arrests made from January 2018 to October 2020, even though the pro-democracy movement fiercely attacked the institution during this period. Those who were arrested were released on bail. Many became recidivist offenders. After a while, Prime Minister Prayut made a U-turn, vowing to "use every law" against anti-institution activists, resulting in at least 124 people being arrested in connection with the lese majeste law.
Indeed, unprecedented challenges have emerged against the institution, made by new political actors. Some of those belong to the so-called October generation, as well as politicians led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul who dared to speak out on such sensitive subjects, gaining attention and support from the young generation.
The abuse of democratic rule with the launch of the military-sponsored 2017 charter by Gen Prayut and conservative elites, who branded themselves as staunch royalists, propelled calls for the reform of the monarchy, which have become louder in parliament and on the street.
As the pro-democracy movement gained momentum, the Move Forward Party came up with a 112 Section amendment draft, which was submitted to parliament on Feb 10. Unfortunately, the document was seen as too controversial.
Yet the MFP insisted on the need for an amendment so the infamous law would not be further abused for political gain. It noted there are too many arrests, as the state uses the law to silence critics of the institution regardless of their good intentions. The party claimed the proposed changes aim to protect the institution, ensuring it remains relevant to the democratic system.
The MFP proposal is interesting. To begin with, it calls for the removal of Section 112, from the chapter regarding offences against national security to a new chapter regarding offences against the honour of the king, queen, heir apparent and regent.
With the proposed removal, the prison penalties would be significantly reduced from a minimum of three up to a maximum of 15 years, which is equivalent to manslaughter, 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.
There is, however, an exemption to the prison penalty if alleged defamation is proven to be both factually correct and in the public interest.
At the same time, iLaw, a non-profit organisation that has pushed hard to change Section 112, is also seeking to amend a procedure in which anyone is able to file lese majeste complaints with the police. The goal of this is to prevent abuse or misuse of the legislation.
It turns out the MFP is the only party with a solid stance on amending Section 112, while former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has made half-hearted efforts on the issue in what is alleged to be a gesture of compromise with those in power.
Those opposing the proposed amendment stoke concern that the move may lead to the abolition of the institution, thus further widening conflict. They cite what are deemed as inappropriate acts against the institution, the use of profanity on protest banners and the use of satire or parody and attacks on royal portraits during the demonstrations.
As both sides continue to lock horns, anti-establishment groups like Talu Gas go quite far with extreme demands such as the abolition of the political system and the liberation of ancient states like Lanna and Patani.
Yet politics as we used to know it has changed, as it is no longer dominated by politicians. This is because people are aware that political conflicts have affected all elements in society and reform is necessary.
Amending Section 112 is absolutely necessary to prevent the abuse of this draconian law. But what is needed now is a platform for constructive dialogue to ensure all changes are for the better so society can move forward harmoniously.
State authorities have to understand that heavy-handed measures against pro-amendment elements cannot solve the problem, as conflicts will only intensify. They must seek political solutions rather than the strict interpretation of the law, otherwise the issue will become a political time bomb waiting to go off. By that time, however, it will be too late for a compromise.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.