By Nayara Batschke
Bangkok, May 10 (EFE).- Three years on from the eruption of the massive youth-led pro-democracy protests in Thailand that broke taboos by publicly broaching the topic of the country’s powerful monarchy, the subject is now part of social debate and has even slipped into party campaigning for next weekend’s general election.
If talk of reforms that could shake the royal institution were limited to street activism before, now the debate has entered the front row of national politics.
For the first time in Thailand’s recent history, parties, candidates, television programs and citizens are openly debating reform of the country’s strict lèse majesté law and, to a lesser extent, the royal institution (as well as of various aspects of government) as citizens prepare to vote in the May 14 polls, in which the political spectrum has never been so wide.
“Every single television channel, every news reporter, every academic, every political party, every single individual now feels that it’s possible to talk about the monarchy or monarchical reform,” says Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University political scientist Kanokrat Lertchoosakul in an interview with EFE.
With a long history of coups and regular enforcement of one of the world’s strictest lèse majesté laws – Article 112 of the penal code, which provides for three to 15 years in jail for anyone who defames or insults members of the royal family – Thailand is experiencing a “new normal” around public discussion of these issues, Kanokrat says.
“Even the conservatives, who are not that happy about this, are now facing the new reality that this issue has become a debate and they are in the circle of the debate too, to protect their own stands,” she says.
All the political parties, from the progressive Move Forward – one of the favorites, according to polls – to the royalist Thai Pakdee, created in 2021 to defend the king and counter the popular demonstrations, are to some extent having to navigate the issue.
Most of the parties sit in the middle, including the opposition Pheu Thai – another favorite headed by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of ousted and exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, while the United Thai Nation Party is the pro-monarchy party of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 military coup.
According to Kanokrat, these elections are seen as a turning point in the history of Thailand, a country where the monarchy cannot be openly discussed without the risk of violating Article 112.
At least 242 people have been charged under the lèse-majesté law since July 2020, while almost 2,000 have been charged and/or prosecuted due to their political participation and expression, according to the NGO Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, describing it as politically-motivated prosecution.
Debate around Article 112 has throughout the electoral campaign divided the country’s political class into those calling for its softening, for its toughening and even for its abolition.
“In the past, all the television channels (and) journalists would be sued if they had this kind of question in the electoral debates. But now this has become the new normal in Thai politics and we have seen this clearly in this election,” Kanokrat says.
Although the student movement opened the door for discussion of the monarchy, Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat says that its “reform is not the central issue, even though people know it is on the agenda,” which is currently more focused on issues such as military reform, marriage equality and structural change.
“It’s already changing, but it’s not going to be an earthquake. Everybody now is adjusting to it,” he says.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, emphasizes that despite the fact that discussing the monarchy has been normalized since the protests, “many people aren’t aware that it remains prohibited to talk in public and they might get in trouble and face consequences.”
The three experts agree that, despite the subtle transformations that the country has undergone in recent years, the monarchy remains a “very sensitive” issue in Thailand and, in many areas, censorship still prevails. EFE