Bangkok Post: Taking time to consider lese majeste law

Report from the seminar last weekend, from today (2009.03.25)’s Bangkok Post

(More from this seminar at Prachatai (English): Seminars recount lese majeste law fears, Lese Majeste: Differences of legal opinion aired at forum on defamation of royalty)

Thailand: Monarchy and Democracy

Taking time to consider lese majeste law

by Atiya Achakulwisut, Bangkok Post, 25 Mar 2009

The controversy over the lese majesty law and how it has been used ostensibly for political gains has prompted a group of academics to petition the Abhisit government to “reform” the legislation.

Before anything can be done, however, there is arguably a need to understand the issue better, from all angles.

That is why a seminar was held last week at Thammasat University on the many dimensions of the lese majeste law. One of the topics discussed was the role of the monarchy in democracy.

Citing an interview His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej granted the BBC in 1979, in which he said, Monarchy in this country has always been on the move, one of the seminar’s speakers, Tongthong Chandrangsu, emphasised that the role and expectation of the monarchy in Thailand has constantly evolved.

While it is true that the landmark change to the institution of monarchy was the 1932 Revolution which ended absolute monarchy in Thailand, Mr Tongthong, former deputy permanent secretary for justice, argued that the Thai monarchy had evolved along with the changing world since the reign of King Rama IV and V.

His Majesty King Bhumibol has the most experience with democracy – 63 out of the 77 years that the country has been under the regime.

The role of the monarchy during the initial years, when the King had just come back from overseas and the country had a seasoned Prime Minister, Field Marshal Pibulsongkram, was different from that during the tenure of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat or at present when His Majesty’s experience and charisma has grown, Mr Tongthong said.

When it comes to the Crown’s relationship with mechanisms of democracy, the government, Parliament and the court, Mr Tongthong said that as the Thai constitutional democracy is modelled after the British one, the institution very much exercises the similar right to be consulted, to advise and to warn.

The dilemma is that a government is liable to public opinions, which can be positive or negative. For a government to consult the monarchy is thus a private matter that should be kept confidential. That is a duty of the government, Mr Tongthong said.

Prominent historian Nidhi Eoseewong referred back to the watershed 1932 Revolution and the resulting status of the monarchy according to the Constitution, which he believes remains debatable.

One stream of thinkers regarded sovereignty as belonging to the Thai people. According to this way of thinking, “constitutional monarchy” is thus considered a new entity that is no longer part of absolute monarchy which had existed before King Rama VII signed his name to the country’s first Constitution.

The other group interpreted the 1932 change as the monarchy allowing the Thai people to exercise sovereignty. According to this school of thought, if a constitution is aborted, the sovereignty returns to the King.

Prof Nidhi noted, however, that both the 1932 revolutionaries and the leaders after that recognised the importance of the monarchy. They never considered republicanism as an option for the country’s governing regime.

With a new set of “powers” coming in between the monarchy and the public, deriving either from elections or the barrel of a gun after 1932, there is no question that the institute of monarchy had to change. But how?

According to Prof Nidhi, what should be the institution’s role in politics has been a subject of argument since 1932 up to the present, evidently with no clear resolution.

The other question which the historian thinks has yet to be resolved is: Where is the proper line between what he terms a “sacred” and a public space.

He defines the sacred space as areas that are not open to the general public to partake, criticise or change without facing a penalty.

Naturally, when the sacred space is enlarged, it encroaches on the public space, Prof Nidhi said. He added that Thai society still seems unable to find where the appropriate line should be. He also cautioned that as society is never static, it is quite possible that the so-called appropriate line will not stay at the same place all the time, either.

Looking back in history, Prof Nidhi said there was an attempt to rearrange the sacred/public areas through an amendment to the Criminal Code which was enacted during the period of absolute monarchy.

The amended Criminal Code of 1946 made a distinction between the King and the institution of the monarchy as well as limited the protection to the King, Queen, Crown Prince and Regent. Still, an application of the law – the fact that accusations can be made by anybody in public space – leaves a lot of room for abuses that are not beneficial to the Crown.

Political scientist Kasian Tejapira said one implication of the 1932 Revolution was the shift of support for monarchy from state coercion to popular consent. In this light, people who propose that the state employ more coercive means to protect the institution may end up eroding the consensual support that has so far protected the monarchy better than any iron wall, without realising it.

Like Prof Nidhi, Mr Kasian said that the change to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 was a “historic compromise” between King Rama VII and the People’s Party.

It was a consensus that the Thai nation would not return to absolute monarchy nor would it want to embrace republicanism. This is a done deal in the Thai history.

In this perspective, any attempt to return sovereignty to the King, petition His Majesty to appoint a prime minister or stage a coup d’etat, is an effort to undo that historic compromise. It is tantamount to asking Thai society to make a decision again regarding whether the King is above or under the Constitution, or to whom does sovereignty belong?

Mr Kasian believes that while the Thai authorities should listen and take into account opinions of the international community regarding the lese majeste law, the right to retain or change the legislation remains ours.

Hence, we can manage to take the time to consider the issue carefully.

However, he warned that since the country’s ruling elite have faced dramatic changes and severe conflicts for a long time, they have developed anxiety and fear, which can turn into paranoia. These feelings are not healthy. Indeed, they could be downright dangerous if they got out of control, Mr Kasian said.

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