BANGKOK - A court ruling on Wednesday (Nov 10) will deepen debate in Thailand over the role of the country's monarchy and the strict laws that protect its reputation.
Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that protest leaders Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, Arnon Nampa and Panupong "Mike" Jadnok had in separate speeches last year violated the Constitution that bans any move to overthrow the monarchy. They had touched on monarchy reform and abolishing the lese majeste law. The court ordered them and other parties to end their protest movement.
Calls to amend or repeal Section 112 of Thailand's Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste law, have been stirring in the past weeks after the country's biggest opposition party, Pheu Thai, ignited debate by proposing a parliamentary review of the law and its enforcement.
The court's attempt to shut down the discussion will only exacerbate the situation, said Dr Paul Chambers of Naresuan University's Centre of Asean Community Studies.
"Today's verdict reaffirms the court's longstanding hard-handed approach to violators of Section 112," said Dr Chambers. "It will only stoke tensions and increase the martyr role of the protesters who are already in prison."
Wednesday's verdict, which carries no penalty for the three convicted, could present an opening for political parties like Pheu Thai to discuss amending Section 112 and in turn strengthen their position among voters, according to Dr Chambers.
Since raising the issue on Oct 31, Pheu Thai has flip-flopped over its support for amendments to the law that forbids insulting the monarchy. After repositioning itself merely as a middleman to facilitate discussion on the matter last week, the party on Wednesday proposed an urgent motion in Parliament. It is seeking a probe into alleged abuses of power by law enforcement authorities against political detainees, including those convicted of lese majeste.
Analysts said a political party's stand on Section 112, which carries a jail term of up to 15 years for each perceived insult of the monarchy, could be important in the next general election as it might remain a hot topic among young voters.
Associate Professor Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee from Chulalongkorn University's faculty of political science estimated that 16 per cent of about 53 million eligible voters in the coming polls that could happen next year will be those aged 18 to 30.
"Pheu Thai is aiming for a landslide victory in the next election, and they will need votes from the younger generation to achieve this," she said, noting that research has shown that Thailand's young voter turnout will likely be "impressively high".
But major political parties, including the incumbent Palang Pracharath Party, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha have said the lese majeste law should not be amended.
Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra has also waded into the debate, at first saying that there was no problem with the lese majeste law. But on Tuesday, he voiced support for changes to the law and suggested reducing the maximum jail term.
Thaksin, who has been in self-exile to avoid a jail term on graft charges, said he had not been clear enough in his previous comments about Section 112.
Section 112 has been a taboo topic for decades in Thailand where members of the royal family are regarded as sacrosanct and the monarchy fiercely protected by the military-backed government.
Lese majeste complaints can be filed by anyone, against anyone, and are always formally investigated by the police.
At least 155 people, including 12 minors, have been charged with lese majeste since the student protests began last year, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a non-profit organisation.
The controversial law is clearly back on the political agenda but Prof Siripan believes many parties are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
"Parties usually keep quiet on this until they see that it becomes a political agenda, like it has (in the past week). But if the protests fade, so could the momentum around the issue of 112," she said.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, said Section 112 would likely take the backseat to bread-and-butter issues in the next election.
"The most important election issue next year will likely be how to better tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, regain livelihoods and economic recovery," he said.
Analysts, however, said that any likelihood of change to the lese majeste law will be possible only if a more liberal party formed government.
"My guess is that we won't see any changes before the next election," said Prof Siripan.