MFP ordered to drop plans to amend lese-majeste law
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MFP ordered to drop plans to amend lese-majeste law

Constitutional Court ruling could set stage for attempt to dissolve opposition party and ban its key figures

The Constitutional Court judges deliver their ruling against the Move Forward Party on Wednesday. (Screen capture from Constitutional Court YouTube channel)
The Constitutional Court judges deliver their ruling against the Move Forward Party on Wednesday. (Screen capture from Constitutional Court YouTube channel)

The Constitutional Court has ordered the Move Forward Party to cease all attempts to amend the lese-majeste law, saying that campaigning on the issue is considered an attempt to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.

The unanimous ruling on Wednesday against the party that won the most votes — 14.4 million — in the May 2023 election could set a precedent for any future review of one of the world’s strictest royal defamation laws.

It was not clear whether the ruling would also apply to any others who make public comments about the royal defamation law.

Move Forward leader Chaithawat Tulathon said shortly after the ruling was announced that the party would wait for the official text from the court before deciding its next step.

While the party accepted the ruling, Mr Chaithawat said it would lead to a “loss of political space” to discuss important issues in the future.

The court said the plan to amend the royal defamation law showed “an intent to separate the monarchy from the Thai nation, which is significantly dangerous to the security of the state”.

While it did not completely rule out the possibility of changes to the law, it said these could be discussed only in the legislature. "Campaigning" for amendments in any other public forum, including online, is something the court said was inappropriate.

The nine-judge panel had no remit in this particular case to prescribe punishments for Move Forward, but some politicians have suggested legal efforts could now begin to seek the dissolution of the party and political bans for its leaders.

To no one’s surprise, prolific petitioner Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, who has targeted Move Forward before, said he intended to ask the Election Commission on Thursday to pursue the dissolution of the party.

In a worst-case scenario, Human Rights Watch noted, 44 Move Forward MPs who signed the proposal to amend Section 112, including former leader Pita Limjaroenrat, could face a lifetime ban from politics for breaching the parliamentarians’ code of ethics.

The lese-majeste law, Section 112 of the Criminal Code, carries penalties ranging from 3 to 15 years in jail for each perceived insult of the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent.

Move Forward’s proposed amendments included reduced sentences, as well as a requirement that a complaint must be filed by the royal household.

Currently, anyone can file a complaint of lese-majeste against anyone else, and the police are obliged to investigate. As a result, Move Forward and others have argued, Section 112 is used frequently for political reasons.

The opposition party’s stand has outraged conservatives and was also cited as the main reason its attempt to form a government last year was torpedoed by the non-elected Senate.

Section 49 in focus

Wednesday’s case focused on Section 49 of the 2017 constitution, which prohibits people from using their rights and freedoms to overthrow the monarchy.

The petition was filed by Theerayut Suwankesorn, a lawyer known for his defence of Suwit Thongprasert, formerly known as Phra Buddha Isara, an activist monk who was a key figure in the Bangkok Shutdown protests that led to the 2014 military coup.

Mr Theerayut has stressed that his petition did not request the court to dissolve Move Forward, although the ruling on Wednesday could be a precursor for a separate petition to seek the party’s disbandment.

Mr Pita, currently the Move Forward advisory chairman, Mr Chaithawat and party MPs were not at the court to hear the ruling. They sent their lawyers and then gathered in a conference room at Parliament to monitor the reading of the decision that began around 2.15pm and took just over 30 minutes.

As they read out their opinions, the judges pointed to past actions of Mr Pita and the party, including their moves to propose amendments to Section 112, join campaigns with groups opposing Section 112, and their actions to apply for bail for lese-majeste suspects.

The court said that Mr Pita and the party tried to either change or revoke Section 112 when its 44 MPs submitted a bill to amend Section 112 on March 25, 2021.

The bill was aimed at lowering the status of the royal institution because it required the Bureau of the Royal Household to file lese-majeste complaints. Consequently, the institution would be placed in direct opposition to members of the public in defamation cases.

That would go against the constitutional principle that elevates the royal institution above any political issues because the royal institution is a pillar of national security, the judges said.

The court also said that Mr Pita and the party continued to call for the amendment of Section 112 when campaigning for election last year and admitted it was a campaign policy.

Content about the proposed amendment that was the same as that in the rejected bill has remained on the website of the party, it added. As well, some party members had even called for the revocation of Section 112 during rallies.

The court rejected claims by Mr Pita and the party that what they did was an expression of their rights and freedoms as a political party, acting in an honest manner, and was not aimed at overthrowing the constitutional monarchy.

Security was heavy at the Prince Ratchaburi Direkrit building, where the court is located. Outsiders were not allowed to enter the building, except those who had received permission to perform their duties or contact officials for government dealings.

The ruling came a week after the Constitutional Court cleared Mr Pita in another closely watched case. It said he did not hold shares in a media business when he applied to run for office last year, and his MP status was restored after a suspension.

Move Forward’s predecessor, Future Forward, was disbanded in 2020 for violating campaign funding rules and its former leader and prime ministerial candidate, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was disqualified over a shareholding issue. (Story continues below)

Pita Limjaroenrat, advisory chairman of the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), listens to the Constitutional Court’s ruling at a conference room at Parliament on Wednesday. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

‘Not a fax from God’

Before the ruling was announced on Wednesday, Mr Thanathorn said he believed lese-majeste should be up for discussion.

“The law is not a fax paper sent from God. It’s written by human hands; therefore people can amend it,” he told reporters.

“If the lawmakers cannot amend the laws, I think something is wrong in the country.”

Critics say Section 112 has been interpreted so broadly in recent years as to shield the royal family from any kind of criticism or mockery.

Earlier this month a man was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a series of Facebook posts deemed insulting to the monarchy.

And in March last year a man was jailed for two years for selling satirical calendars featuring rubber ducks that a court said defamed the king.

The yellow bath toys were an unexpected symbol of mass youth-led street protests that shook Bangkok in 2020.

According to data from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights to Dec 31 last year, 1,938 people have been prosecuted for political participation and expression since the beginning of the Free Youth protests in July 2020. At least 262 are facing lese-majeste charges under Section 112 and 138 have been charged with sedition under Section 116. Nine cases under Section 116 came before the courts in December and all were dismissed.

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