By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Hope that the lese majeste law might be amended under the Yingluck Shinawatra government was unceremoniously dashed last week.
House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranond rejected even a debate last week on the proposed bill to amend the draconian lese majeste law, submitted by the Campaign for the Committee for Amendment of Article 112, which is the other name of the law. It will likely send people to seek other means to undermine the blanket censorship imposed on anything mildly critical of the monarchy institution, however.
On Monday, prachatai.com news website quoted Wattana Sengpairoh, spokesperson for Somsak, defending his boss by saying that since the issue was tied to the monarchy, the current charter forbids any changes of law related to the institution – so, it was not up to Somsak to decide.
The shutting down of legal debate is unlikely to curb the sense of injustice suffered by Thais who value freedom of expression and who feel that it is long overdue for scrutiny and open criticism of the monarchy like those in the United Kingdom, Japan and Spain. They feel this is a fundamental right and that they can always compare how monarchies in other democratic countries are criticised and made publicly accountable.
If 30,383 signatures supporting the amendment is not enough to convince the House Speaker and ruling Pheu Thai MPs to even open a debate in Parliament, then it’s now up to concerned citizens to take the debate even wider and deeper into public spheres.
Although the majority of signatories were likely to be red-shirt Pheu Thai supporters, the ruling party has irresponsibly exhibited a lack of fortitude and lamely defended their decision in private by saying they do not want to become a greater target of anti-monarchist accusations.
For red shirts who want genuine democracy, freedom of speech and equality, is this another warning of how Pheu Thai will expediently act as a guardian of the status quo?
Thailand is caught in a Catch-22 scenario. The elites want the international community to see the country as cherishing freedom of expression, yet they also want a “special law” to protect the institution. This argument for the need to maintain the law, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and ensures that anything mildly critical of the monarchy will not be published or broadcast by the mainstream mass media, is itself fraught with irony. You want to protect the good name of the monarchy but by having people jailed and censored or forced to self-censor, that “good reputation” is affected, if not tarnished.
Some defenders of the law say the majority of Thais are not intelligent or mature enough to be able to separate fact from fiction, and lies from reliable information. Others may in fact be afraid that people are in fact smart enough and able think for themselves. While many ultra-royalists will readily venture to tell Thais and foreigners alike that most if not all Thais love and revere HM the King, these very people contradict themselves when they express fear about what may become of the institution if people are suddenly free, able to access and critically discuss, or even criticise the monarchy.
In a way, ultra-royalists believe people will not be suspicious about the existence of only positive news and information about the monarchy. But the growing call to reform – if not abolish – the law suggests otherwise.
Now that the Parliament has prematurely shut its door, the struggle and angst of those who refuse to accept censorship and self-censorship as “normal” will likely concentrate on the streets, like the occasional Sunday street talks about repercussion of the law in front of the Criminal Court where some have been sentenced under the law, or on the Internet, on Facebook, Twitter and deeper underground. The Kingdom is like a boiling pot with no legal outlet to let that steam off.