Archaic law serves only to weaken the monarchy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2011, 12:00am


The increasing number of lese-majeste cases in Thailand in recent years has dangerously worsened the human rights situation in the country. The case of Amphon 'Akong' Thangnoppakul, 61, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, highlighted the misuse of the law to undermine political opponents. Amphon was found guilty on four counts under the lese-majeste law and computer crime laws. While this incident angered many Thais, it was celebrated by the royalists.

And just this month, Joe Gordon, or Lerpong Wichaikhammat, an American who was born Thai, was jailed for 2 1/2 years in Thailand after posting online excerpts from a banned book - The King Never Smiles - about the country's monarch, while living in the US.

The government of Yingluck Shinawatra now seems to be playing a royalist game to avoid a confrontation with the traditional elite. But frustration is growing among its supporters who demand a more open society.

There are many reasons behind the use of the law, from cloaking the weakened institution of monarchy and hiding the uncertainty of the royal succession, to controlling society, conserving the privileges of the elites and prolonging the military's role in politics.

But the more the Bangkok elite employ the law for political purposes, the more they weaken the monarchy. This abuse highlights a sense of desperation on the part of the establishment, which has exploited the law to maintain its position of power.

Interestingly, however, prior to the 2006 coup, it appears that lese-majeste charges were put forward primarily as an instrument for eliminating enemies between elite groups. After the coup, with politics becoming deeply polarised, the royalists began to target virtually anyone with different political ideas.

Exact numbers are not available, but according to one estimate, in 2005, 33 charges came before the Court of First Instance. Last year, the number was 478. The most dramatic increases came under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which adopted a royalist line with strong backing from the military.

The only way for the monarchy to survive in the changing political environment is for members of the old establishment to urgently consider reforming, or even abolishing, this anachronistic law. Reform could possibly be in a larger context of amending the current 2007 constitution.

This would not be easy. And the Yingluck government might be more interested in building a 'working relationship' with the palace to secure its own power interests, rather than challenging it.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies