Objections to Section 112 can't be ignored
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Objections to Section 112 can't be ignored

People fill out forms in support of a bill aimed at repealing Section 112 of the Criminal Code during a rally by Ratsadon protesters at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok on Oct 31. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
People fill out forms in support of a bill aimed at repealing Section 112 of the Criminal Code during a rally by Ratsadon protesters at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok on Oct 31. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

One favourite argument among people who believe that nothing should be done to the controversial lese majeste law is that any attempt to change it will lead to conflicts.

Does this mean we do not have any conflicts now?

Section 112 of the Criminal Code or the lese majeste law has returned to the political agenda after the Pheu Thai Party announced last week it will support an amendment of the centuries-old law in the parliament. The decision was a complete U-turn from the party's vow not to touch the law five years ago.

As its chief strategist Chaikasem Nitisiri said, Pheu Thai has the most MPs in parliament. Its decision to take a public stand on the issue deemed politically sensitive during this period when speculation is rife about a new election, not only turned up the political heat but forced other parties to show their hands.

There is no question regarding the opposition Move Forward Party's as it has made amending Section 112 one of its key policies.

The KLA, or courage party, led by former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij went in the opposite direction.

The party's secretary-general Atthawit Suwannapakdi said it will not support an amendment or abolition of the lese majeste law as it believes such a move will lead to more attempts to defame the royal institution which will cause clashes and then another military takeover. The oldest party, the Democrats, went further and vowed to fight against any parties pushing for the amendment in the parliament.

Even Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha joined the fray making it clear he will let the lese majeste law stand as is, which seems to be the standpoint of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party as well.

As the debate went on, the Progressive Movement group, led by banned politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, ran an online campaign urging people to sign up in support of the abolition of Section 112. The campaign had received more than 190,000 signatures as of yesterday, which seems to have exceeded expectations.

It is probably true that the campaign will not see the light of day despite the support for it.

Still, it seems ironic for royalists to simply insist that any attempt to change the law will lead to divisiveness.

Whether there are 190,000 or millions of supporters for an amendment to the lese majeste law, the conflict is already here.

On the one side, the pro-change groups have pushed for reforming the monarchy until the formerly taboo issue finally breached the surface of Thai society.

Discussions about the monarchy, ranging from how the institution should become more transparent and accountable to the democratic process to whether the traffic-stopping royal motorcades can still be justified, have been brought out into the open.

It is not just the desire for reform of the monarchy that has become more visible but innuendo, ridicule, and even contempt have also been increasingly on display whether it be on social media, placards during political protests or spray-painted words on the street.

The frustration has certainly got on the nerves of the royalists who generally believe the monarchy is a divine institution, or best kept that way. Any attempt to make it accountable to the democratic process or to demand transparency from it is therefore considered vile.

It's therefore no surprise that for the ultra-conservative, the lese majeste law which allows anyone to file a charge against others and carries a heavy punishment of three to 15 years in jail for the crime of "defaming, insulting or threatening the monarchy", which has not been clearly defined, is fitting. It is fitting because for them the institution can never be accountable to anyone or anything. Anybody who tries to drag it down to the prosaic, common-people level thus deserves to be punished.

To them, it probably does not matter that the lese majeste law does not conform to the democratic ideal of freedom of speech or with international rule of law where the damaged should act as the plaintiff.

If the royal institution were an exception to the lay political system, so should all the rules and regulations concerning its existence and practices.

This is where we are. The conflict, between people from different generations, those who subscribe to different political ideologies and those who envisage different kinds of futures for Thailand, is not just evident but profound and expanding.

Pretending not to see it does not make the demand for change go away.

Indeed, to do nothing to the controversial law when discontent has become so visible against it is but the surest way to stoke the fire and fuel future conflict -- ironically what the conservatives seem to fear the most.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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