Amending Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, is a key campaign pledge of the Move Forward Party (MFP), but questions have arisen as to whether the party will be able to pursue the issue.
Parts of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the MFP-led alliance could end up backfiring on the MFP if it goes ahead with its plan to revise the ultra-sensitive lese majeste law, observers say.
The MoU, which outlines policies the eight parties wish to pursue when taking the helm, affirms the country's status as a democracy under a constitutional monarchy, and the inviolable status of the monarch.
It also says that all parties have the right to advocate for additional policies as long as they do not contradict the policies outlined in the agreement.
In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, MFP deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun insists the MoU will not undermine the party's plan and it is only a matter of time before the MFP pushes ahead with the proposal to reform the law.
The MoU was revised to add parts concerning the monarchy. Will this affect the party's plan to seek an amendment to the lese majeste law?
A: We've agreed that it won't affect the party's plan to propose an overhaul of Section 112. We'll submit the same bill we did [in February 2021].
In essence, the proposal changes seek to reclassify the lese majeste offence, reduce penalties and specify who can file lese majeste complaints.
The revised MoU is seen as a sign of coalition partners being uncomfortable with the lese majeste issue. Is this why the MoU was modified? How will the MFP explain this to its supporters?
A: The MoU did not contain the proposed change to the lese majeste law from the beginning. The MFP has always stressed the issue isn't a condition for joining a coalition. The planned amendment isn't an issue when discussing the MoU.
The MFP, with 151 MPs, will push ahead with the proposal to revise Section 112. What's next is that it'll talk with MPs from other parties about supporting the proposal and ensuring its passage in the first reading.
But the MoU says the coalition's missions will not affect the institution of the monarchy and that policies which any party wants to pursue must not contradict the agreement. Will this deter the coalition partners from supporting the amendment?
A: The draft amendment doesn't contravene any part of the MoU and the parts in question are in accordance with Section 6 of the constitution. The three points that form the essence of the bill don't run counter to Section 6 of the charter.
Some coalition partners don't agree with amending Section 112, but there is time for the MFP to persuade coalition partners as we work together. The party has promised to submit the bill on its own, and the move won't contravene the MoU.
Is it possible that differences over the issue will lead coalition partners to withdraw from the coalition? It is understood the MFP will submit the bill as soon as the House convenes.
A: I think Section 6 of the charter reflects the "King can do no wrong" principle. I don't think the coalition partners will see the amendment proposal as against Section 6.
The opposition bloc and some sectors in society appear to see the amendment to Section 112 as a move to allow criticism of the monarchy.
A: We understand it is a sensitive matter, but we stand by the freedom of expression principle. Honest criticism must be allowed and this will improve the relationship between the monarchy institution and the people.
Section 112 has been used as a political tool against people with opposing views, which worsens the relationship between the institution and the people. We have work to do. We need a dialogue with those with opposing views and the opposition. Eventually the matter will be discussed in parliament.
What about criticism that is not honest criticism, but it is not outright harm? How to manage it? Wouldn't it be 'solving one problem yet causing another'?
A: First, we will seek to change who can file lese majeste complaints with police. Of course, there will be a debate if it should be the Royal Household Bureau.
Then, there will be a screening process to determine if an alleged offence is defamation or hostile behaviour and if it should be prosecuted.
If we agree that the Royal Household Bureau will file lese majeste complaints [instead of any citizen as is the case under the current law], and the alleged offence is determined as not defamatory or not hostile, it doesn't fall under Section 112.
The lese majeste law is not being abolished, but the gravity of penalties will be reduced to make it proportionate, with a minimum punishment that is not a jail term.
Let me give an example. If a Facebook post is found to be a lese majeste offence, the offender faces a minimum jail sentence of three years, which is considered serious. The jail sentence will be tripled if the post is repeated three times. A judge can't exercise his judgement and combine it into one offence. The amendment will make punishment proportionate and lessen confrontation.
Some people say that society has not changed much and people have different sets of beliefs or values. They have concerns about the emergence of a "grey area" where dishonest criticism takes place.
A: Creating an understanding with those with opposing views is a must-do. Section 112 was revised to impose harsh penalties after 1976. The punishments for the offence during the reign of King Rama V were less harsh. The penalties were increased to three to 15 years in 2019.
Society has gone through changes and the proposed reform to Section 112 is one of the issues picked up for public debate. The issue is being discussed based on facts and principles and in a constructive environment.
I won't argue that it will be hard to push for the bill, but we'll try to talk to those with opposing views and reduce confrontation and hostility. It's our job.
Will the added parts hinder any attempt to seek the drafting of a new charter?
A: We agreed to have them added because we don't want them to be concerned. We don't think the drafting a new charter will lead to a change in the country's governing system. As a matter of fact, those added parts are unnecessary because they are in a section of the charter. No political party will propose changing the system of government. The added parts are to allay any concerns any coalition partner may have.
Before the elections, parties focused on their own supporters to the point that it created an echo chamber that filters out opposing views. Now that they are forming a coalition, what will the government do to communicate with all groups?
A: MFP leader, Khun Pita, made it clear the moment the party knew it won the elections. He announced that he will be the prime minister for all, whether or not they agree with him. It indicates that we care about representing all groups, not just our supporters. Our communication process will follow this approach and will be reflected in our work. Khun Pita is thinking about setting up working teams to hold talks with various groups.
When hard-core supporters make a move, they create an impression that there is an internal conflict.
A: We don't feel there are hard-core supporters pressuring us. Some supporters disagreed and were upset with our plan to bring in another party [the Chartpattanakla Party] into the coalition.
We listened to their voice and fixed the issue. It doesn't feel like being pressured. What's important is that we keep communication open.
We're setting up a multi-party government and listening to all sides is part of the work. Communicating is the most important issue.
Does the party feel the need to take House Speaker post to push its policies?
A: It's necessary for us to assume the role. We've realised the post is important when it comes to setting the House agenda.
What if the House Speaker post ends up in the hands of another coalition party? What is the party's back-up plan?
A: I don't think it will happen. Negotiations about posts within the coalition should be concluded by then and we are supposed to demonstrate unity. If we reach a deal it won't happen. But if we can't, that's possible.