Middle ground sought in lese majeste row

Middle ground sought in lese majeste row

Is it obvious that something has to change?

How far can Thai people's rights, liberties and equality, which are officially protected under the constitution and considered key pillars of democracy, go?

And how extensive should veneration for the monarch, which is also prescribed by the charter, be?

At present, areas where the two "virtues" cross into each other seem large.

It's within the grey areas that the two "virtues" are clashing strongly.

Should Thai people have the right to criticise the royal institution? To deride the crown or suggest that it be reformed to conform to modern expectations and what young generations believe to be its role under the democratic tradition?

Certain groups of people are apparently asserting that they should be able to do so, that their freedom of speech and rights to express opinions should be protected.

Although the constitution does specify that these rights and liberties can be enjoyed as long as they do not violate national security, the rights of others, the need to maintain public order, good morals and public health, these conditions are seemingly open to interpretation.

For the pro-rights groups, advocating reform of the monarchy does not breach any of these conditions.

They actually deem the proposal as being good for national security and public morals.

For them, it is only when the monarchy becomes more responsive and accountable to the public and democratic processes that the throne would be enshrined, by its own virtue and not by force.

For groups in the opposite, however, the sanctity of the monarchy should be absolute and literally inviolable.

That is why these groups believe Section 112 of the criminal code or lese majeste law must be preserved.

That is why they believe the law is justified even though there is no clear definition of what constitutes the crime of "defaming, insulting or threatening" the king, queen, heir apparent and regent.

For them, since protecting the crown is the duty of every Thai, it is rational for any citizen to file the lese majeste charge against anyone without them being the damaged party.

And since protecting the crown is first and foremost, even superseding other rights and liberties, therefore it does not matter if the lese majeste law has been subject to criticism that it does not conform to the international legal standards or procedures.

It does not matter that the law appears to go against international standards regarding human rights and freedom of speech. That it carries heavy punishment of three to 15 years in prison for defamation or in some cases what may be considered thought crimes is considered a plus for the supporters as they believe the severe penalty would act as a deterrent.

For these people, the inviolability of the monarchy has been extended to the point that even well-intended people, who have called for amendments to the lese majeste law which they view as a tool to protect the royal institution, are deemed as insulting the monarchy itself.

This is one of the reasons why we see an aide to the prime minister betting his position as he led a campaign to gather a million petitioners to drive the human rights watchdog Amnesty International out of Thailand.

Assistant minister at the Prime Minister's Office Seksakol Atthawong claimed that the human rights watchdog's campaign urging the government to stop prosecuting monarchy reform protesters is equivalent to interfering in the country's internal affairs and essentially an attempt to lend support to people who are "abusing" the monarchy.

This is why we see ultra-royalists announcing there can be no respect for human rights when it comes to protecting the monarchy.

But can the sanctity of the royal institution be expanded to the point that it becomes an absolute entity under the current constitutional context?

If the monarchy cannot be criticised at all, nor can the law that punishes those who seek to do so, should the charter be changed to make it an absolute entity?

Otherwise, the continued expansion of the "sacredness" and inviolability of the monarchy under the current democratic context will inevitably clash with people's rights and liberties which are also protected by the constitution.

It is becoming increasingly clear that campaigns and witch-hunts to drive this and that group out of the country will lead to nowhere. The overlaps, whether within the constitution or social traditions, between people's rights and monarchic protection, must be cleared. And it seems a peaceful way out can only be found through serious and meaningful dialogue.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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