Constructive dialogue on S112 needed

Constructive dialogue on S112 needed

Anti-government protest leader Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul posts notes outside the Bangkok Remand Prison during a demonstration. AFP
Anti-government protest leader Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul posts notes outside the Bangkok Remand Prison during a demonstration. AFP

Amid a series of youth protests calling for monarchy reform, one thing I learnt is that what has been lacking is a space for a constructive discussion -- a platform where people, either royalists, proponents of monarchy reform or those with neutral ideas, can have a healthy debate, without being in fear of violating the lese majeste law, or being criticised by left or right political wings that seem to have become more radicalised and lacking in tolerance to differing views.

The monarchy is a revered institution that has gained respect from Thais for centuries. Nevertheless, as society changes, the younger generation has started to question its relevance in modern society, especially the application of lese majeste law on critics.

In December last year, I came across an interesting campaign by a civic group. This civic group, originally campaigning on the country's public health and social wellbeing, launched a secret project -- a social experiment.

The scheme is a closed forum in which people with different beliefs were brought to sit in same room, then asked to explain their thoughts and listen to each other.

The organiser told me the group had to conduct a closed meeting without revealing the names of attendants. The organiser admitted the group did not want to upset their partners and allies.

The experiment aimed to test if dialogue on the protest stage and the monarchy could be brought to the table and if people from different political camps could co-exist.

Is it possible to debate this contentious issue? Or will this always be treated as a taboo subject?

I was invited to be a participant of this meeting which was held in December, but could not attend. I discussed the matter later with the organiser and called on participants to write stories on constructive dialogue.

After interviewing participants and the organiser, I learnt that people can lower their guard after being together and listening a while, and will try to find a consensus on the matter.

Under the guidance of facilitators, around 10 participants representing royalist and anti-royalist groups had a chance to explain their thoughts and question each other's ideologies.

According to interviews, in the early part of the meeting, both defended their ideologies aggressively with resentment, anger, and occasional shouting.

Some participants found the conversation unbearable and wanted to leave. But they were encouraged to stay and direct more questions to their opponents.

But the tension gradually relieved eased in later hours of dialogue. Though not agreeing with each other's ideas, participants listened and asked more questions. Their anger subsided; their ears opened.

What I found is that both groups are more similar than they imagined. Participants from both camps had never been questioned by their opponents, nor engaged in serious discussion with people they disagreed with on this matter.

Most admitted that they tried to avoid confronting people with different opinions in their daily lives and that they remain in echo chambers.

Both groups preferred their "echo chamber" which for them serves as a comfort zone that gives them confidence and prevents them from hearing "irritating" or even "stupid" views.

The meeting ended with no consensus, and no participants changed their points of view. Participants from both sides, told me in interviews that they still pondered the questions they were asked even after the experiment ended.

The hope of good understanding starts when we start to doubt our own belief. Perhaps, we might not be as right as what we thought.

One extreme royalist told me in a phone call that that she began to agree that the lese majeste law was exploited by state officials to curb political dissidents.

However, she remained steadfast that it is better not to have the law amended. A few participants representing anti-royalist groups agreed their opponents have valid reasons to respect the highest institution.

Before, these anti-royalist people admitted they held a condescending attitude for the opposite side.

Society needs projects like this more than ever. We need someone to act as a facilitator who can start dialogues across the spectrum of people.

In theory, it is parliament -- chaired by elected representatives -- that should have taken this role, simply because these elected members proclaim they have been chosen by people and will work for people.

Most parties have distanced themselves from this issue, driving people to fight on the streets to advance their causes. What society sees is more resistance and more divisiveness.

At least 154 protesters, 12 of whom are juveniles aged under 18, have been charged with violation of the lese majeste law since November last year, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Yet most parties have kept their heads down. On amendments to lese majeste law, the Democrats and Bhumjaithai have a policy not to push for any changes, similar to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha who represents Phalang Pracharat Party.

Pheu Thai -- which had pledged not to touch the law -- surprisingly released a statement last week saying the party now will advocate amendments to the lese majeste law.

Nevertheless, the party's stance was questioned after former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on a social media platform that he did not think the lese majeste law is problematic in itself.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) is the only party that pushes for Section 112 amendments and discussion in parliamentary debate.

It proposed "a middle point" solution that includes the deduction of lese majeste law's maximum prison term from 15 to one year.

Currently, anyone can file a case on the violation of Section 112. Move Forward proposed that a case should be launched by the Bureau of the Royal Household only, which will still protect the monarchy's reputation while preventing abuse and misuse of the law to prosecute political oppositions and dissidents.

As political parties have different levels of engagement in the discussion relating to the monarchy, it's unlikely parliament will include it on its main agenda soon.

But if the parliament doesn't do this job, who else will?

Will we have an opportunity to engage in dialogue to prevent violence in the future, or we will lose this opportunity and reach the point of no return?

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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