The revival of the use of the lese majeste law against a dozen protest leaders is unprecedented in at least three ways.
First, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha denied last month that it was him who initiated the revival of the charges under the law, which carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years. Instead, Prayut said police will have to carry out their duty by enforcing the law.
This came after Prayut himself had said in June that His Majesty the King had instructed him that the law should not be used.
While it marked a reversal in the policy after half a year, no one wants to claim responsibility. It reflects the controversial nature of this anachronistic law which has been criticized and opposed by critics over the decade.
It has become a hot potato that no one wants to claim the responsibility for using it again. That means the law is increasingly fragile and its ‘legitimacy’ increasingly questioned, particularly now that one of the 10 demands to reform the monarchy includes abolishing the law.
Some already said why is it that millions still revere Buddha when there is no blasphemy law protecting the Buddha from being criticized in Thailand?
The second unprecedented factor is that not only a dozen people are being charged at around the same time, but those charged remained adamant, with some like Panupong “Mike” Jadnok saying last week that it’s an ‘honour’ to be charged under the law. This is contrary to past cases when those charged with lese majeste were deemed as pariahs.
What’s more, the third interesting factor is that in all the 13 cases, the court has declined the request by the police to issue arrest warrants. Instead, all are being summoned and some showed up at the police station on Monday per summon letters.
This could be read as the court not fully supporting the latest use of the law as in the past, most of which were detained while fighting the charges.
The authorities are now caught in a Catch 22 situation where they try to use the law in order to contain unprecedented criticism, verbal and written attacks against the monarchy as a result of the growing monarchy-reform protest movement. By doing so, the controversial law returns to the spotlight of not just the Thai but also foreign media.
It’s perceived disproportionate penalty where defaming an ordinary citizen carries a maximum imprisonment term of one year or fine of no more than 20,000 baht under Article 326 of the Criminal Code.
Compare one-year maximum imprisonment terms to that to 15 years maximum imprisonment term under the lese majeste law, which is Article 112 of the same Criminal Code, then it’s hard to justify how an ordinary citizen is 15 times less important than a monarch, particularly in the 21th century.
It’s unclear how many more can be charged under the law before the lese majeste law is lost not just in efficacy but legitimacy and reaches a tipping point where it is seen as unjust, if not illegitimate, by a large sector of the Thai population.
This is the challenge facing the law and the monarchy institution. A severe punishment of more and more people comes at a price. The use of cruel and disproportionate law such as this may end up producing the exact opposite effect – making more Thais hate not just the law but the monarchy.
As the battle for the hearts and minds of the people, particularly young Thais, continue, some measures may do more harm than good to the monarchy institution itself.