After a failed attempt a decade ago to amend or abolish the section of the Criminal Code that punishes people for defaming, insulting or threatening members of the monarchy, new calls have emerged questioning the monarch’s role in Thai democracy and have faced legal harassment.
Protester flash a 3-finger salute. One person holds a flag saying 'Free political prisoners. Abolish Section 112'. (File photo)
2021 saw the dwindling of a massive political movement calling for political and monarchy reform due to another wave of Covid-19 infections. Regardless of the decreasing number of public voices, the popular demand to abolish Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lèse majesté law, is an interesting sign.
Past attempts to abolish 112
The current version of the lèse majesté law carries a penalty of 3-15 years in jail for those found guilty of defaming, insulting or threatening the King, the Queen, the Heir Apparent, or the Regent.
There have been attempts to amend Section 112 in the past. In 2008, the Student Federation of Thailand, Triumph International Labour Union and the activist group Prakai Fai (Spark of Fire) published a statement calling for a variety of political reforms and social welfare measures. Among the demands for judicial reform, it proposed the abolition of Section 112, calling it ‘backward and chauvinistic’.
A year later, Giles Ungpakorn, then a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, gathered around 1,000 signatures in support of abolishing Section 112.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul (File photo)
In 2010, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history lecturer from Thammasat University, made ‘8 proposals for reforming the institution of the monarchy’:
- Abolish Section 8 of the Constitution, paving the way for parliament to conduct a trial over the monarch’s wrongdoing.
- Abolish Section 112 of the Criminal Code (the lèse majesté law)
- Abolish the Privy Council
- Abolish the Crown Property Act BE 2491 (1948)
- Abolish one-sided public relations and education related to the monarchy
- Abolish all royal prerogatives that allow the monarchy political expression
- Abolish all royal prerogatives regarding royal projects
- Prohibit all donations made by or to the monarchy
In April-May 2011, the civil society groups Democracy Network and 24 June for Democracy Movement rallied for another round of signatures to abolish Section 112.
Before 2012, academics from many colleges and universities had formed a group called the Committee Campaigning to Amend Section 112. The group proposed to reduce the penalty, remove the Section from the Chapter on security-related offences (which allows any individual to bring charges), make the Office of the Royal Secretariat the sole entity authorized to file complaints, and make a clear distinction between defamation and ‘honest criticism’.
They received 26,968 signatures in support of their proposal.
Before the establishment of this Committee, Worachet Pakeerut, Thapanan Nipithakul, Teera Suteevarangkul, Sawatree Suksri and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul of the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, also proposed amendment of Section 112.
The Committee’s resolution was submitted to parliament on 29 May 2012. It was dismissed even before the parliament even had a chance to discuss it.
A louder call for Section 112’s abolition
In comparison with the attempts of the past decade, the current campaign on Section 112 has clearly surpassed them, with the issue widely discussed. One indicator is the number of signatures in support of abolishing the law on the website no112.org, which reached 237,589 as of 5 January 2022.
Moreover, there is even a call for change in parliament from the Move Forward Party, a move that no party has ever before dared to make. The KLA Party, which has no MPs, also proposed establishing a committee to consider indictments under the law, which the government approved at the beginning of 2022.
But the number of Section 112 prosecutions is as high as ever. Since the law was enforced again in November 2020 after a brief moratorium, 166 people have been charged in 171 cases, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).
The interpretation of the law by enforcement officers goes beyond the legal framework, says Pichit Likhitkitsomboon, a former lecturer at Thammasat’s Faculty of Economics who supported amendment a decade ago.
“I see it as a high degree of difference in terms of policy. 10 years ago at the time of the committee to amend Section 112, I understood that there had been no high-level policy that set out a clear stance on this. It was handled on a case-by-case basis. There was still no common basic approach and still no coordination among different bodies in the judicial process, the police, prosecutors, the courts and the prison system, because at that time, criticism was still not widespread.
Pichit Likhitkitsomboon (File photo)
“But today, we can see clearly that there is a clear approach from high-level politics setting out that, if this is the issue, cases must be prosecuted in this way,” said Pichit.
Pichit also does not understand the wide interpretation of the law since 2020 where actions like wearing traditional Thai outfits or some other dress ended with royal defamation charges.
Monarchy’s role in democracy: a contributing factor to Section 112 discussion
Pichit finds the discussion in the past faced less resistance than at present. Many famous cases raised doubts about the enforcement and interpretation of the law, including that of Ampon ‘Ah Kong’ Tangnoppakul, the elderly lèse majesté convict who died of cancer while in custody in 2012 despite several attempts to secure bail due to his ill health. But the regular mechanisms of elected government and the atmosphere during the reign of the late King Rama IX accommodated differences of ideas.
But the movement starting in 2020 has pushed the limits of questioning the monarchy in public in a way the kingdom has never seen before. When discussion included the monarchy’s status and power within Thailand’s democratic system of government, it was inevitable that Section 112 would become an issue to be addressed.
“The idea of having to draw a clear line [around the monarchy’s power] has created discussion and astonishment. Especially those who have been living in the same relationship for fifty to sixty years will feel that posing questions or calls to draw a clear line are a threat, a path toward instability.
“There was a reaction. One weapon that was picked up was Section 112, so the debate that is taking place today is not a debate to find a solution … but a political conflict that includes defiance and a desire for systematic change. When feelings of understanding or belief like these arise, reasoned debate becomes difficult,” said Pichit.
Too soon to forecast abolition
As far as public outcry over amendment or abolition are concerned, Pichit sees a long way to go to achieve real changes in terms of policy.
So far, the Pheu Thai Party and Move Forward Party are the only two parties that have taken a stance on doing something in terms of policy. Pichit considers only the Move Forward Party as the real deal. He discounts the stance taken by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, many of whose core members are now part of Pheu Thai.
“The stance of Pheu Thai is unchanged. It will absolutely not touch the monarchy or the military. They have never touched the military budget, not to mention the budget for the monarchy or related activities. This is the stance of the boss of the party who has a direct interest in this, coordinating the interests and relations of the monarchy and the military.
“The statement that was issued and caused one day of uproar, if you go and read it well, stated only that the party will consider the issue. It did not say at all that it will take part in amending Section 112. And a few days later, Khun Tony (Thaksin Shinawatra) put the brakes on. Since then, Pheu Thai has been silent,” said Pichit