Straight to the Point
The National Legislative Assembly today was supposed to consider two bills that would further erode freedom of political expression in Thailand. Each bill is being sponsored by over 60 members of the NLA, including several supposed media representatives. It is only good that both bills have been withdrawn.
But that does not mean they should not be discussed.
The first bill seeks to amend the criminal code to extend the crime of lese majeste to cover defamation and expressions of contempt against royal children, privy councillors, and personal representatives of the King.
Offences against privy councillors would carry jail terms of between six months and five years and/or fines of between 10,000 and 100,000 baht. Offences against royal children would carry even stiffer penalties.
The second bill, if passed, would allow investigators or prosecutors to seek court orders banning all reporting or commentary on lese majeste cases by any media throughout the period of investigation and court trial.
These are bills relating to the extremely sensitive issue of lese majeste in Thai society. Had they not been withdrawn at the last minute, they would have been considered by an unelected legislature appointed by a military junta that took power on Sept 19 last year.
The NLA has no right to consider these bills!
The fact that prominent media representatives are sponsoring the bills is simply outrageous!
There has been no public hearing or debate on the contents of the two bills, which clearly infringe upon the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in our new constitution.
Media reporting and commentary on the bills has been muted due to the reluctance of our media to engage with politically sensitive issues.
Already Thailand has one of the most severe lese majeste laws in the world. The penalties for infringement against the King were increased to a maximum prison sentence of 15 years by Order No. 41 of the military junta which took over the country after the bloody killings of Oct 6, 1976.
The need to resort to such a severe law in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population revere the monarchy, is questionable. People who insult the monarchy are likely to face widespread social condemnation without any need to resort to criminal proceedings.
In democratic countries such as the United Kingdom and Norway, such laws exist but are very rarely utilised.
The problem with our lese majeste law is that it has become a weapon used by powerful political forces to discredit their opponents, and by high-ranking government officials to bring charges against their competitors on the promotion ladder.
His Majesty the King, in his 2005 birthday speech, indicated that indiscriminate use of the lese majeste law could be damaging to the Monarchy and had required him to intervene on a number of occasions.
The problem is that the wide interpretation of the law prevents legitimate democratic debate on the role of the Monarchy in Thai society and legitimate comments on the actions and speeches of members of the Royal Family.
Already the lid clamped on such discussions is building up pressure in Thai society.
The first bill seems designed to stifle all criticisms against General Prem Tinsulanonda by anti-coup or pro-Thaksin groups who believe that Gen Prem was involved in the Sept 19 coup.
It also has the apparent effect of raising the status of privy councillors to the ranks of royalty. Is this really wise?
Whether the accusations are correct or not, Gen Prem is a public figure who is a legitimate target for political opinions, particularly considering the fact that he himself has made many comments on political issues during the past two years, as can be seen on his official website.
He is already protected from defamation by criminal law.
The second bill is most dangerous to civil rights in that it would expose defendants in lese majeste cases to very possible abuse by authorities, since the public could be prevented from being informed of their cases and even of their identities.
In the long run both bills, if they have a way of coming up on the table again, could have the very opposite effect to their stated intentions, causing both damage to the Monarchy and to the Thai justice system, not to mention the effects on our democracy.
Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present is Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development. Comments are welcome at: email@example.com
First Published in Bangkok Post