Thailand election debate: Parties share stand on royal defamation law

Thai Election Debate

Screenshot of Thailand election debate on Thairath TV YouTube channel

This article was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

On April 18, the Thairath Election Debate 2023 was broadcast on the Thairath TV YouTube channel, with Jomquan Laopetch as moderator. In the final session, each party presented their position on Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the royal defamation or lèse majesté law.

Section 112 has existed in Thailand for decades. In recent years, prosecutions under Section 112 have multiplied, particularly under the National Council for Peace and Order. Thai Lawyers For Human Rights (TLHR), an organization of human rights lawyers and social activists, reported that between 2014–2019, at least 106 individuals were prosecuted under this law. The interpretation of this law has been widened without clear boundaries, and has included cases involving sharing Facebook posts, opinions about the royal family’s pets, or burning portraits of the former king.

A quasi-moratorium on the use of Section 112 lasted from 2018 to 2020, with the prime minister stating that King Vajiralongkorn had asked for Section 112 not to be used.

Charges were re-introduced and became more prevalent after a demonstration in late 2020, calling for monarchy reform. The government changed its policy, saying it would use all laws, including the royal defamation law, to deal with protestors, leading to a surge in royal defamation offenders. During 2020–2023, at least 240 people, including eight minors under 18, in 259 cases were prosecuted for royal defamation offences. These cases were brought by various complainants, including members of the public, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, state officials, and the police. Of these cases, 184 have been brought to court, and none have been dismissed.

Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, a TLHR lawyer, has said that it is difficult to enforce Section 112 under the logic of the law alone. What should be of concern is the strict enforcement over the past few years. Section 112 prosecutions are brought in every case involving the monarchy, pointing out the unpredictability of law enforcement.

According to Sawitree Suksri, a law lecturer from Thammasat University, the interpretation of the law is problematic. It should be based on the same standards as those used with similar laws in the Criminal Code. For example, the burning of a royal portrait in 2021 led to a charge of royal defamation. The act may be counted as arson but was not a direct threat to the subject in the portrait.

During the election debate, two perspectives separated those parties who support the continued existence of Section 112 as is, namely Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath, and Ruam Thai Sang Chart, from those who consider the enforcement and legal provisions of Section 112 problematic, and believe that there are several ways in which the law can be amended.

‘Section 112 is not problematic’

Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn who represented the Palang Pracharath Party remarked that Section 112 is not a political offense, but some politicians have exploited it as a political weapon. He emphasized that no government agency exploits the law to intimidate the public. Only information and understanding regarding the law are provided. He said that the government found seditious conspiracy, and the criticisms were very harsh. Officials had to prosecute in order to protect the nation’s highest institution.

Buddhipongse Punnakanta, a representative of the Bhumjaithai Party, also said that Section 112 is not problematic.

We see that Section 112 is not a problem for the people. We have already said that in our system of governance, we believe that the King is above politics.

Juti Krairiksh, a representative of the Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation) Party headed by the incumbent prime minister, said that Thailand has survived for 700 years because of the three pillars of the country: nation, religions, and monarchy. He warned against getting involved in troublesome activities, adding that one should not blame others if one chooses to engage in such activities.

‘Section 112 is problematic in terms of enforcement and its legal provisions’

Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, proposed a four-part amendment:

1. The penalty of 3-15 years in prison, which is equivalent to manslaughter, is excessive and should be reduced to one year.

2. Not everyone should have the right to file complaints; this should be restricted to the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary or the Bureau of the Royal Household acting as the representative of the monarchy.

3. Section 112 should be removed from the Chapter in the Criminal Code dealing with national security, as it leads to difficulties in the court’s judgment and enforcement.

4. If the alleged offence is done in good faith, without malicious intent, there should be no prosecution under Section 112.

Jurin Laksanawisit, leader of the Democrat Party, expressed the view that Section 112 is still crucial, as it is designed to protect the head of state, and many other nations have a similar law. He believes that if the enforcement is problematic, the solution lies in amending the enforcement process, rather than abolishing the law. He disagrees with the idea of having the Bureau of the Royal Household or the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary act as complainants, as it is like directly pitting the monarchy against the people.

Varawut Silpa-archa, leader of the Chartthaipattana Party, suggested that any amendment of Section 112 should be subject to a referendum, as it concerns all Thais and their beloved institution.

On the other hand, Prommin Lertsuridej, a representative of the Pheu Thai Party, believes that amending Section 112 should be done through a parliamentary process, as a peaceful resolution of conflict. “It is not necessary to conduct a referendum. The House of Representatives should listen to public opinion and address this in parliament.”

Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of the Thai Liberal Party, said that the government should apply different approaches toward offences of defamation and malicious intent. He suggested that the penalty for an offence of malicious intention should be a maximum of 15 years while the maximum penalty for defamation should be three years. This would be beneficial for both the royal institution and the people. However, his party insists that a royal defamation law is needed to protect the head of state.

Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the Thai Sang Thai Party, stated that she initially agrees with Sereepisut’s idea of the need for a law protecting the monarchy. She suggested that problems with the law should be addressed in parliament, with a focus on finding solutions based on reason. She also brought up the issue of imposing a law on those who misuse Section 112 to attack political opponents, suggesting that they should face more severe penalties.

Suwat Liptapanlop, chair of the Chart Pattana Kla Party, said the party does not have a policy on amending Section 112. However, if enforcement of the law becomes unjust or is turned into a political weapon, an amendment should be considered. He also referred to a proposal by Atavit Suwanpakdee, deputy leader of the party, to establish a special committee of police officers and prosecutors to ensure justice in the enforcement of Section 112.

Thailand's general election is scheduled for May 14.

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