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SATURDAY, September 23, 2023

We need a clearer definition of lese majeste

We need a clearer definition of lese majeste
TUESDAY, December 06, 2016

Blurred line on royal defamation is preventing national debate vital to the Kingdom’s progress

Over the weekend, the police arrested a pro-democracy student activist and charged him with insulting the monarchy after he shared a BBC article about King Maha Vajiralongkorn .
The article was posted on the British broadcaster’s Thai-language Facebook page.
The arresting officer said the article violated the country’s lese majeste law, prompting the first arrest for royal defamation since the new King ascended the throne last Thursday.
Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a law student, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on the charge. 
Jutapat, a member of the outspoken pro-democracy Dao Din student organisation, was arrested in the Northeast province of Chaiyaphum while attending a religious ceremony. The group has held a series of public protests against the military-led government. Needless to say, there isn’t much love for its members among their target, the junta.
The arresting officer and his team appear to have acted on their own discretion in judging that Jutapat’s conduct violated the law.
However, it is not clear why he was singled out for arrest when others had previously shared the same article. Could it be that the police also took into account his past criticism of the ruling junta?
Their action also raised another more important and more difficult question: what, precisely, constitutes an insult to the monarchy?
For years, governments have used Article 112, better known as the lese majeste law, to silence political dissidents and to further their own agendas.
The law is readily exploited in this way because no one can say where the line of is drawn. Then-Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya tried to disperse the damaging confusion in 2010 when he told an audience at Johns Hopkins University that Thailand needed to debate the evolution of the monarchy. 
“I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy,” Kasit said. “How it has to reform itself in the modern globalised world … Just like what the British, Dutch, Danish or Liechtenstein monarchies have gone through to adjust themselves to the modern world.”
Opposition politicians in Thaksin Shinawatra’s camp pounced on that statement, but then made little headway in their attempts to damage Kasit’s standing.
Broaching this taboo subject can cost a politician or bureaucrat their career, since those responsible for enforcing the law feel compelled to act quickly.
The mystery in Jutapat’s case, then, is why police only acted several days after the allegedly defamatory post had been shared. 
Meanwhile, if sharing the post violated the lese majeste law, then the content must also be problematic.
Will the police involved in the arrest now be charged with negligence for not flagging up the original BBC report?
The point here is that when it comes to lese majeste, nobody seems to know the standard operating procedure or where the red line lies. Since assuming power after the coup, the military-led government has gone after lese majeste suspects with all its might, thus lowering the threshold of the law.
The junta has little legitimacy in terms of a democratic mandate but sees claims authority as the defender of the revered institution. It also claims that the coup was launched in order to launch much-needed reform that would strengthen democratic institutions and process. The generals’ talk of reform has since been replaced by a discourse of law, order and stability, and defending the institution of the monarchy is part of that initiative.
In this globalised and Web-connected world, it is virtually impossible to prevent anybody from sharing article deemed defamatory or otherwise illegal. Given that cold reality, we need to come up with a clear definition of what constitutes lese majeste.
As it stands, the law can be exploited by any person, using their personal and flawed judgement, to claim an action or statement defames the monarchy regardless of its context. And when it comes to such a sensitive issue, one’s judgement can always be cloudy.