Thailand’s use of its authoritarian lese majeste laws appears to be changing as the kingdom looks poised to hold its first democratic election since the May 2014 coup.
The laws, which have been repeatedly used to jail royal critics for up to 15-year terms and are regarded as the world’s harshest by human rights groups, have silenced all forms of discussion about the monarchy and the succession.
One purported reason behind the 2014 military coup was the generals’ desire to be in charge of the government amid the looming death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to control the process of installing his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, on the throne.
Military-run tribunals since 2014 have handed down some of the longest prison sentences ever witnessed under the law.
A man was jailed after asking questions on social media about the king’s dog and a cleaner, who appeared not to challenge her activist son sufficiently strongly in a private message exchange, was also incarcerated.
And, therefore, all debate about the monarchy was ended.
The principle of “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” appeared to lead the junta to target the innocent in a bid to silence wider debate among more formidable commentators.
While Thailand has traditionally been regarded as having Asean’s least-oppressed media – a limited distinction in a repressive region – newspapers were always gagged by lese majeste.
It has long been possible to read a Thai newspaper column which uses an opaque phrase like “charismatic leader” and have no idea to whom it is referring.
But now, with a general election pencilled in for February, lese majeste appears to have been removed from the generals’ arsenal as a means to control the Thai population.
A softening on lese majeste prosecutions could mean distaste for the new king is so widespread that cracking down on expressions of discontent might rebound badly on a junta that is trying to give itself legitimacy as a potential democratic government ahead of next year’s poll.
Well-known 85-year-old scholar Sulak Sirivaksa until recently faced prosecution under lese majeste and reportedly appealed directly to the king for a royal reprieve.
Sulak, in a recent interview with Asia Times, claims credit for consigning the draconian law to the history books, at least for now.
The royalist and military critic says charges that were bought against him in 2014 were dropped after the king advised Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to ditch the case.
“If the case went to the military tribunal, they were bound to put me in jail without any law, because the law doesn’t mean anything to them,” Sulak said.
“So many letters, emails from Amnesty International, from Pen International, from all the Nobel laureates all over the world, but Prayut did nothing. And when the king told him to drop the case, obviously it was royal advice that worked.”
The political climate has changed since King Bhumibol died in October 2016 when the generals discouraged all discussion. Now the same generals are eyeing electoral success, casting themselves as benign dictators, who have successfully steered Thailand away from the crises that have dominated its politics since the 1997 financial meltdown.
Around the 2016 succession, the generals justified the repression by claiming to be tackling republican plots, including one that allegedly aimed to disrupt King Bhumibol’s sacred funeral in October 2017, after a year of national mourning.
The junta has since said it has broken a republican T-shirt printing operation with links to activists in neighbouring Laos.
Sulak has long argued that lese majeste, which until recently had a 99-per-cent conviction rate at trial, needed to be reformed. The social commentator said he recently told Vajiralongkorn the law was being abused for political purposes.
Sulak was quoted saying: “I told the king his father said that clearly – it’s on record – that anybody that makes the case of lese majeste harms him personally and undermines the monarchy.
“And you can say publicly the king wrote personally to the Supreme Court and attorney general, and since then there have been no new cases.”
Sulak said future cases would only be accepted for investigation and prosecution with royal consent.
And the promises of an election in early 2019 have brought this relaxation into the open.
Bangkok-based rights legal representatives say their clients charged under lese majeste have had their cases dropped.
It is far too early to imagine that Thailand’s political troubles have been resolved.
King Vajiralongkorn remains unpopular and, the more discussion that is allowed, the more questions will be asked about his bizarre lifestyle and unaccountable wealth.
But if the much-delayed general election is held in February and the courts stop jailing people for making comments about “royal” pets, Thailand can begin to leave the dictators’ club it joined in 2014.
The Thai military has spent millions of US dollars creating a shrine to previous kings near Hua Hin. Picture credit: Asean Economist