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Lese majeste debate tests Thais' ability to disagree peacefully

Thai society is facing a major test in the way it handles the stark ideological differences on what to do with the controversial lese-majeste law.

The past two weeks have seen a growing hate campaign to demonise the Nitirat group of law lecturers and their supporters as anti-monarchists seeking to overthrow the monarchy institution. The campaign comes despite a lack of substantiated evidence and in the face of repeated assurances by the group, which is led by Thammasat law lecturer Vorachet Pakeerat.

Effigies of Vorachet and his colleagues were burnt in front of the university on Friday. Yesterday, royalists gathered at the Royal Plaza to denounce the group's bid to amend the law and make penalties for violators less severe. Yellow-shirt mouthpiece ASTV Manager Daily newspaper, meanwhile, was busy repeating the unsubstantiated allegation that Nitirat and its supporters, who have formed a public campaign committee to amend the law, are part of a conspiracy to establish a republic under fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Kingdom was similarly rife with unsubstantiated rumours in 1976, when a right-wing mob attacked and lynched dozens of students and people they regarded as communists in broad daylight in Bangkok. Thais can avoid a repeat of such a tragic incident only if they learn to disagree in a peaceful manner without hatred, and refuse to believe baseless allegations.

However, on top of the unsubstantiated allegations, Nitirat and its supporters have been branded "non-Thais" by various people, including Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. This is another blatant attempt to emotionalise the issue. It could lead to the dehumanising of Nitirat, turning them into "the other", the non-Thai, leading their opponents to believe they do not deserve to be treated like any other Thai citizen, or even as human beings.

A similar thing occurred in 1976 when Chinese-looking Thais were accused of being Vietnamese infiltrators; some of those accused were brutally lynched on October 6 of that year.

While the campaign to amend the law by Nitirat and the committee will go on, along with the opposition to such a campaign, it is sincerely hoped that Thais will recognise that they need not hate those they disagree with and that they must not uncritically accept unsubstantiated allegations.

People from all spectrums of society who care about Thailand's future must agree to disagree without hatred, hate speech or violence. Unfortunately, some members of Nitirat claim to have received threats.

It would be pointless to pretend that all Thais agree on the issue, or to pretend that no such conflict exists. People must remember that sorting out differences in a civilised and peaceful manner, with tolerance for those you disagree with, is an essential part of any democratic society.

The time to deliberate on the issue is now. Allow those who want to amend the law to gather all the signatures required unimpeded and without being threatened, and let those who oppose the amendment gather peacefully and be reasonable. Let us try to make it possible to peacefully disagree, whether the lese-majeste law is eventually amended or not.



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