A protester on 18 July with a message "Speak the truth not equal to slander" (File Photo)

Open and constructive dialogue on the Thai monarchy emerges

The speeches and demands at the 10 August protest have broken the decades-long taboo on addressing monarchy reform in public. After the initial turbulence and fears of a backlash passed, a public panel was organized that included royalist, conservative and progressive figures.

Left to right: Thirapat Serirangsan, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, Tul Sitthisomwong and Ekasit Noonpakdee (Moderator)

The panel discussion was held on 15 September at the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University (TU), under the name “If politics were good, how would we discuss the monarchy?”. Addressing the issue of the monarchy straightforwardly is a very rare sight in this country, especially after the 2014 coup when prosecution of critics of the monarchy intensified.

But now, they are back with an open attitude.

Positioning the King and monarchy

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the Secretary General of the dissolved Future Forward Party and now a leading figure of the Progressive Movement, said the Thai people have to discuss which kind of regime they want to be ruled under. The answer will determine the position of institutions and the relationship among them.

He said that if Thais want to be ruled under a democracy, institutions including the monarchy will have to adapt to the principle that the people hold supreme power. The institutions that exercise power in the name of the people will have to be accountable, independent and open to checks and balances.

If Thais have decided that they want to be ruled with the King as head of state, the delineation of the King’s power must be clear. Power that matters in the public sphere must be accountable in line with the legitimacy principle in democratic regimes. If Thais do not want the King to be charged or prosecuted, then it is important to prohibit the King from using his prerogative in the public domain.

Piyabutr referred to the principle that ‘the King can do no wrong’. He said this is because the King can do nothing. Every decision of the king that relates to public must be acknowledged, implemented by and made accountable to the people's representatives, the ministers.

This design is the reason for the inviolable status and immunity of the head of state. Constitutional monarchies like Denmark or Norway also carry the same immunity status, but they do not force their people to love their king. In Thailand’s case, Section 112 of the Criminal Code enforces the inviolable status of the monarchy.

Monarchy can be spoke of with respect

Tul Sitthisomwong, leader of the multi-colour shirts, a conservative, royalist, anti-red shirt group that played a significant role during the 2010s, said discussion about the monarchy can be held, with respect for people who have a good faith in the monarchy.

A merchandise booth at the 19 September protest at TU with a royal-themed banner of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic in exile who criticizes the monarchy, one of a satire which many royalists found troubling since the TU 10 August protest.

Tul cited Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 2017 Constitution of Thailand that everybody has the right and freedom to hold opinions and express them with some restrictions related to protecting national security and public order. If expression related to the monarchy can result in damage to national security and public order, he urges people to express their minds in a discussion like that of this panel.

10 reform demands explained

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a leading figure in the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration who read the first statement calling for monarchy reform, said this became a topic in society after the statement was read on the stage on that fateful night.

[Full statement] The demonstration at Thammasat proposes monarchy reform

She said the organizers decided to make the statement because they have seen many protesters countrywide raise this issue. Therefore, the leaders had to speak on the issue of the monarchy to stand alongside them.

Panusaya read the 10 demands statement at the 10 August protest, a landmark incident where the demands on monarchy reform was addressed straightforwardly.

The demands made at the 10 August protest, in essence, want the overwhelming and unchecked power granted to the monarchy by the 2017 Constitution and other laws to be reduced. The monarchy should be reformed so that I can be respected and honoured in a sustainable way in the changing democratic culture.

“We have never said that the 10 demands must only be followed literally. But we tried to be the initiators of what we want to happen. We need this. If anything should be amended, it must be amended to in order for monarchy reform to go on in the most appropriate, stable and sustainable way possible.”

“...It is the submission of our expectations to the monarchy to please listen to the voice of the people, what we are thinking, what form we expect the monarchy to change into to modernize in today’s world. Culture can change all the time. The monarchy, which is one part of our culture and tradition, must also change as the culture changes,” said Panusaya.

Panusaya described the logic behind the 10 demands.

1) The King is also human. He may have committed some actions that are wrong but he is still protected by immunity. Therefore, it is not fair to escape the responsibility for wrongdoing which common people have.

2) The monarchy is an institution within Thai society. It should be open for criticism in case people see that any aspects to improve. If the reason for the existence of the monarchy is to be an object of veneration for the people, then it is the people’s right to talk about what has been done wrong so as to help quash what would sully the reputation of the institution.

3), 4) Public institutions like political parties, parliament or universities are open to audit or inspection because they spend taxpayers’ money. The budget for the monarchy and royal property that comes from the people’s taxes should also be subject to audit to prevent corruption. It can also be reduced in line with the economic situation, as the purpose of the monarchy is to support the people.

5) This does not mean that the monarchy will be left with no officials. But some of its agencies like the Royal Security Command should belong to the Royal Thai Armed Forces. Having his own guard means the King has his own troops that respond to his will rather than responding to the will of the people's representatives or military commanders. This can be considered as excessive power.

6) It is difficult to check both donors to royal activities and how the donations are spent. By prohibiting donations, the budget for the monarchy can be checked in a more effective manner as the income of the monarchy will be restricted.

7) The King is a public figure. By giving his opinion on certain issues publicly he will have a large influence on public opinion. The King should be as neutral as possible so that he can be the symbol of caring for all Thai people regardless of which side they have taken.

8), 9) The one-sided positive narrative of the monarchy is backfiring on the monarchy’s reputation because it goes against the simple reasoning that everything has its good side and its bad side. Presenting neutral information and refraining from propaganda should be better for the monarchy as society has been debating the current narrative in the online sphere.

10) The King must never again endorse any coup. Panusaya did not elaborate on the details of this point.

Positioning the lèse majesté law

The implementation of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, known as the lèse majesté law, is one of the problematic issues in the Thai legal system. People can be jailed from 3 to 15 years for criticizing the members of the monarchy who are protected in the law. It has been simple for anyone to file a complaint as it is a criminal law regarded as related to national security. On the other hand, the accused find it hard to get bail from the courts.

Protesters at Khon Kaen marched to the police station with the banners stating the 10 monarchy reform demands.

The panellists, both conservatives and progressives, shared quite similar opinions that the lèse majesté law would not, and should not be used.

Tul cited King Rama X’s opinion, as announced by Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who said that the King had ordered the lèse majesté law not be used. As the law is in the Criminal Code and the King could not abolish it by himself, he declared that the law been de facto abolished. King Rama IX also did not want anyone to be jailed under lèse majesté charges.

Tul also claimed that, in the past, the palace has been concerned about many lèse majesté cases. He said in the case of Surachai Danwatthananusorn, who was pardoned in 2013 after spending 2 years and 6 months in jail under the lèse majesté law, the Corrections Department originally did not submit a pardon petition because of other charges that Surachai faced.

Tul also questioned the lawyers’ intentions in the Amphon ‘Ah Kong’ Tangnoppakul case where the pardon petition was delayed to the point that Ah Kong died in prison. He said that he received word from his teacher, who has a connection with the palace, to look after Ah Kong and prepare for the pardon, but in the end no petition was submitted.

He also stated that the Palace showed good will toward foreigners found guilty under the lèse majesté law by pardoning them and escorting them to the airport for deportation.

Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer and Ah Kong’s lawyer at the time, posted on his Facebook page after Tul’s speech that the team of lawyers submitted many petitions to the court to have him transferred to hospital for treatment, but were refused. Petitions for bail on the grounds of sickness were also denied.

Anon said the court verdict said that “although it could not be proved that the defendant is the one who sent the messages, it is normal for the wrongdoer to conceal his own actions ...”

Anon stated that there was a signal that a pardon would be given after social pressure against the 20-year jail term, on condition that the defendant accept the sentence without making an appeal. This is the reason the legal team decided not to proceed with the appeal when he maintained his innocence until his last breath. Ah Kong died a few days before the pardon petition was submitted.

Anon during his speech at the rally on 3 August 2020, marks the first speech that address the monarchy issues publicly during the reign of King Rama X.
(Source: The Isaander)

Ah Kong was arrested in August 2010 for allegedly sending 4 SMS whose contents violated the lèse majesté law. Despite evidence in the trial that, for example, Ah Kong’s SIM card used a different service provider from that of the SMS sender, the court found him guilty and gave him a 20-year prison sentence.

Tul’s statement deserves scrutiny as Surachai later disappeared along with his 2 friends while living in self-exile in Lao PDR in 2018. His friends were later found dead and their mutilated bodies were retrieved from the Mekong river.

It is also worthy to note that Tul later filed a lèse majesté complaint against the student protest leaders following the mass protest on 19-20 September.

Prof Thirapat Serirangsan, political science professor from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University and former minister under the junta-appointed Surayud Chulanont administration after the 2006 coup, said Section 112, as a criminal law, gives the prosecutors, police and courts wide authority in interpreting the offence. It results in people deciding not to criticize or the creation of an underground resistance instead.

Thirapat said this is a very dangerous state for Thailand. If Thais want to be ruled under a constitutional monarchy, problems must be addressed and talked about straightforwardly.

Protesters showed up at the 19 September protest at Thammasat University with a banner stating "Royalist Marketplace: click join and enlightened", referring to the Facebook group which mock and criticize Thai monarchy.

He also said that kings in the past have accepted criticism. King Rama VI accepted the opposing opinion from another columnist that Thailand at that time did not need to purchase submarines. King Rama IX also said during his speech on 4 December 2005 that the king can do wrong. When the king has done wrong, he needs to accept criticism.

Thirapat said that the 10 demands on monarchy reform can be addressed, but in the right place as there are many issues that need further discussion. The 10th demand that requires the king not to endorse any further coup is not a proper demand. He made a correction that the king never officially endorsed or appointed coup makers. In principle, kings should not agree with coups d’état.

Thirapat believes that coups will be difficult in the future because the 1st and 11th infantry regiments that are located in Bangkok, and which have been crucial assets for staging coups, are now under the Royal Security Command under the king’s rule. So public scrutiny will be focussed upon the next coup maker.

Defamation instead of lèse majesté

Piyabutr said if kings Rama IX and X have already thought of the lèse majesté law in that way, then would not it be better to abolish Section 112. The enforcement of this law itself has shown that those responsible for enforcing the law find it difficult.

A former MP who devoted himself to the abolition of the lèse majesté law when he was an academic proposed using the defamation law instead, with the condition that the defamation law must not carry a criminal penalty. He believes that the civilized world would not jail people just for criticizing each other.

Piyabutr invited royalists and conservatives to focus attention on the content of the students’ 10 demands, as some have shown antipathy and frustration at the sarcasm against the monarchy in the 10 August protest.

He also asked students to craft some kind of communication strategy in order to convince people who hold different opinions to join hands to find a public consensus about the position of the monarchy in Thailand.

Piyabutr thanked the academics and people on the conservative, royalist side like Tul and Thirapat who still insist that a dialogue about the monarchy is needed in order to seek the possibility a public consensus.