Thailand: MEPs call for reform of ‘draconian’ lese majeste

Some European lawmakers are pressuring the EU to include tougher demands on Thailand to reform its taboo lese majeste law that imposes lengthy prison sentences on those who criticize the monarchy.

First proclaimed in 1908, rights groups say that more than 200 people, including children, have been convicted since a wave of youth-led street protests erupted in 2020, many of which have seen participants openly call for abolition of the law.

Criticism of the royal household remains the most taboo subject in Thailand, a constitutional monarchy that will head to the polls for a general election next month.

European Union relations with Thailand will be strengthened under a cooperation and partnership agreement signed last December, and this is an "an excellent opportunity for the EU to push for higher standards of human rights in Thailand, including the demand to abolish Thailand's draconian lese majeste laws," Jordi Sole, an MEP and a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, told DW.

Sole and colleagues have attempted to include amendments to a draft European Parliament report on the partnership agreement that explicitly calls for Thailand to reform the controversial law.

A royal taboo

Whereas the monarchy was mostly considered sacrosanct under the popular former king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in 2016, a seemingly growing number of Thais have demanded legal reform since the coronation of his successor.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn's personal life, including his residence in Germany, has been controversial, as has what some Thais consider his overstepping of constitutional boundaries by engaging in politics.

A wave of youth-led protests began in 2020 against the military-led government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a coup in 2014 that some analysts reckon was a way for elites to stage-manage a royal succession. By 2021 they morphed into street demonstrations where calls for royal reform became more pronounced.

In November 2021, Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that even calls for royal reform are "seditious." Critics say the increasing use of the lese majeste law, which carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence, is a way of censoring all criticism of the government.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a campaign group, reckons that at least 1,895 people have been subjected to criminal charges for their involvement in protests since 2020. Of those, at least 237 people have been charged with lese majeste, including 18 children.

In late March, a 15-year-old girl was detained on pre-trial detention for participating in a protest last year.

"This development is yet another unsettling reminder that Thai authorities continue to target children as they use the law on lese majeste to suppress peaceful dissent," Amnesty International's Thailand Researcher Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong said in a statement.

Support for reform

The Move Forward Party, a mainly youth-focused political party, has campaigned on the pledge to abolish or reform the law ahead of Thailand's general election next month.

But the small opposition party is unlikely to win power, and the larger parties are averse to publicly discussing the issue.

Prasert Jantararuangtong, general secretary of the Pheu Thai Party, which is currently leading in the polls, said in January that public discussion of the law is good but any attempt to amend it "could lead to more conflict."

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said that when foreign governments condemn the impact of the lese majeste law on human rights, they focus on how the law is "exploited" by political actors but they "never challenge the law itself."

Western governments, he added, "have been reluctant to interfere as the issue is closely related to the institution of the monarchy; they do not want to come across as being hostile to the institution."

Pavin, who has lived in exile since 2014, is a co-founder of 112Watch, a group that campaigns for legal reform. Lese majeste is formally defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code.

"In my opinion, Western governments must focus on the law mainly, or even help support reform of the law, as requested by the young generation in Thailand," Chachavalpongpun told DW.

Calls from the West

In March, however, Democrat US senators Edward J. Markey and Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, introduced a resolution that called on the Thai government to "repeal and cease the promulgation of laws and decrees that are used to censor online content and speech related to the electoral process, including Thailand's lese majeste law."

Senator Markey also had words of caution about the military's involvement over the upcoming elections.

"The people of Thailand deserve fair and free elections," said Senator Markey. "Our resolution will make that clear to the Government of Thailand. The United States must show its support for human rights and democracy so that the political power is back in the hands of Thailand's people — not military leaders."

MEP Jordi Sole last month sought to include an amendment to the European Parliament's draft report on the EU-Thailand cooperation agreement that "urges the Thai authorities to repeal its lese majeste provisions."

Tonino Picula, another MEP and member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, proposed an amendment to call on the Thai government "to review the lese majeste law."

A third MEP, Fabio Massimo Castaldo, wanted to include a reference that Thailand's "democracy remains deeply flawed, the regime continues to employ authoritarian tactics, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, lese majeste charges…"

The original draft contained no mention of lese majeste. It remains to be seen whether those amendments will be accepted in the European Parliament's final report.

Picula told DW that "the principle of our amendment is not to say that insulting the king or the institutions should be allowed, but that this should not be used to deny or violate citizens' freedom of expression and media freedom."

However, analysts reckon the European Commission is unlikely to wade into such a combustive issue, especially since last month it agreed to restart negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement with Thailand.

EU spokesperson Peter Stano said that the bloc "is closely following developments regarding the use of the lese majeste law in Thailand."

"The European Union continues to reiterate in its dialogue with the Thai authorities the crucial importance of up-holding human rights and the rule of law, including the principle of proportionality," he added.

Source: Deutsche Welle