By Alexis HONTANG
After shocking Thailand’s military-backed elite with a historic election breakthrough, the Move Forward Party now wants to take on the nation’s biggest political taboo — laws on insulting the monarchy.
However MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s determination to modify the lese-majeste laws protecting King Maha Vajiralongkorn has quickly emerged as a key issue that could block his path to power.
The monarchy has long had an exalted status in Thai society, and is shielded from criticism by section 112 of the penal code, which punishes infractions with jail terms of up to 15 years.
Posters of the king are ubiquitous, from shops and homes to public buildings and motorway billboards, and cinema-goers are expected to stand for the royal anthem before screenings.
But youth-led pro-democracy demonstrators in 2020 breached the taboo against public discussion of the monarchy’s status, with some protesters calling for the king’s power and spending to be reined in.
MFP channelled the reforming zeal of the protest movement in its campaign for Sunday’s election, pledging to limit who can bring lese-majeste charges and to cut the maximum sentence.
– Tough laws –
Critics say the law is abused to silence political dissent, and prosecutions rocketed in the years after the 2014 coup that brought Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to power.
Section 112 outlaws defaming, insulting or threatening the king or certain members of his family.
But its interpretation has expanded to include almost any criticism, whether in public or on social media, including even indirect or lighthearted references.
Since the 2020 protests erupted more than 200 people have been prosecuted, including minors, some for seemingly trivial transgressions.
Earlier this year a man was jailed for two years for selling satirical calendars featuring yellow rubber ducks that a court ruled insulted the king.
MFP proposes to cut the maximum sentence for lese-majeste and restrict who can bring charges — at the moment it can be done by anyone, and ultra-royalists are known to trawl social media looking for potential complaints to file.
Pita insists the changes are needed to heal rifts in Thai society, and that Move Forward will not eradicate the law.
“We want to amend, not abolish, act 112, which can be done in the parliament,” he said.
“We would like to talk maturely in the parliament, and we will do it slowly but surely and thoroughly.”
But in the past the army has used even the suggestion of disloyalty to the crown as grounds to launch a coup.
The generals ousted elected governments in 2006 and 2014, promising both times to get tough on elements threatening the monarchy.
And the current, military-written constitution makes it extremely difficult for Pita to become prime minister, even though Move Forward won the most seats.
MFP and rival opposition party Pheu Thai are working on a multi-party coalition that would give them more than 300 out of 500 lower house seats.
But to secure the prime minister’s job the coalition needs a majority across both houses — including the Senate.
The 250 members of the Senate — monarchist, pro-military arch-conservatives, hand-picked by Prayut’s junta — are threatening to block Pita’s bid for the job.
“I disapprove despite the number of MPs he gathered,” Senator Jadet Inswang said.
“I will not accept Pita as a PM because he… has previously said that he would abolish 112. I can’t accept.”
– Cycle of unrest –
But given the results of the election, the issue is now part of the political debate regardless of whether Pita becomes prime minister, according to Napon Jatusripitak, a political scientist and researcher at the Yusof Ishak Institute.
“I think there is going to be some political space for amending the lese-majeste clause, regardless of whether the MFP ends up in the government or not,” Napon told AFP.
“This election has sort of been a quiet referendum on that issue.”
Rejecting a prime minister chosen by a coalition government with such a large electoral mandate could plunge the country into a fresh crisis, with protesters likely to flood the streets.
This would reignite the cycle of elections, street protests and coups that have dogged Thailand for two decades, fomenting instability and hampering progress.
And despite the challenges facing them, many MFP supporters feel the dam has already been broken.
“This election was a slap in the face of the older generation, the old mindset, the old belief, and the old politics — the status quo has been demolished,” Panussaya Sitthijirawattanakul, a 2020 protest leader hit with multiple lese-majeste charges, told AFP.
–Agence France-Presse VIDEO