The past week saw an unprecedented flurry of reactions both in support and opposition to amending the controversial lese majeste law. The issue would likely turn the next general elections into a de facto referendum on the law, if not more, for many people.
It all began on Sunday when just hours after the renewed major protest by monarchy-reform groups reiterate their year-long call and started a signature drive for the abolition of the law, or at least an amendment, depending whom you asked, the opposition Pheu Thai Party’s chief of strategic committee Chaikasem Nitisiri issued a statement late that night saying the party supports pushing for the proposal to be debated in parliament.
Given that all parties have been in a pre-electoral campaign mode for well over a month now, it wasn’t long before other parties, ruling and opposition, publicly took a stance on whether they support amending the law, abolishing it, or defending the law. As expected the ruling Phalang Pracharath Party and its two major coalition partners the Democrat and Bhumjai Thai parties all said they will oppose any move to amend the lese majeste law.
Democrat Party spokesman Rames Rattanachawaeng said Monday that the law is not the problem but it’s the thinking and actions of some people that’s the problem. “The lese-majeste law is not problematic as distorted and claimed by those calling for the amendment by the parliament… If it’s tabled for the parliament we shall fight. We support strict enforcement of the law,” Rames said.
Any hope that the current parliament will table the proposal for debate was further diminished when Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha vowed on Wednesday that as PM and representative of the government, he opposes any amendment of the law.
“As Prime Minister and [leader] of the government, there will be no proposal to amend the lese majeste law. Do not destroy what we respect,” Prayut said.
With clear opposition by the ruling-coalition parties and elections widely expected by the middle of next year if not earlier, it’s most unlikely that the proposal will even be tabled by the current parliament. And even if it succeeds, it will likely be rejected in a vote. This is why for many who are passionate, for or against the law, the next elections will not just be about how to solve the economic crisis but partly a de facto referendum on the law itself if not more.
Both supporters and opponents of the law are already gathering signatures to amplify their stance. On Friday, Suwit Thongprasert, aka former monk Phra Buddha Issara, and former leader of the now defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which played an instrumental role in the events leading up to the May 2014 coup, submitted a list of 200,000 online signatures to the parliament. On the other pole, over 100,000 signatures have been collected by Saturday afternoon by groups calling for the abolition of the anachronistic law.
Back to the theatre of party politics. Any expectations that all the opposition parties are solidly behind the proposal to amend the law also quickly dashed earlier this week when the parties met and said in a press conference on Wednesday that they take no common stance on the law but will respect each opposition party’s position on the matter. The Opposition Move Forward Party’s stance is to push for an amendment while the Pheu Thai Party stopped short of pushing for an amendment but vowed to push the proposal to be discussed in parliament.
What’s striking is when the Move Forward Party made a public statement on Wednesday as to where it stands on the debate about the law, the party secretary general Chaitawat Tulathon stressed that the amendment will ensure that the “good relations” between the monarchy institution and the people under the rule of law will be achieved.
As for ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, regarded by many as the real influence behind the Pheu Thai Party, Thaksin put a brake on the party itself. Thaksin wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that the law itself is not the problem. “The law itself has never been a problem. The problem today is the misuse of the law, however…. Both sides should cease the drama. Take a deep breath and start anew… in order to properly honour the monarchy in the right manner.”
Note that in the public statements made by Prayut, Thaksin and even Chaitawat, we heard nothing about those who have lost faith in the monarchy or have gone republican. It’s as if there are only people who love and revere the monarchy, even among those who want the law reformed or abolished. This state of public self-denial is another hurdle Thailand has yet to overcome. We must try to come to terms with reality and not pretend that all are royalists. It’s as if there’re only royalist political parties, real or fake.
It’s ironic that those who acknowledge that there exist anti-monarchists and republicans are mostly the ultra-royalists.
To amend or not amend the lese majeste law, or even to abolish it, is a much needed debate and we can start on the right foot by trying to be more honest about where the different groups stand. The perpetuation of a state of self-denial will not do Thailand any good.