| 22 May 2024, Wednesday |

Call for review of Thai royal insults law sparks rare debate

In recent days, nine Thai political parties have taken positions on the modification of a harsh royal insults law, pushing a contentious debate into the mainstream that would have been impossible only a few years ago.

The conversation was sparked by a youth-led anti-government protest movement that formed late last year and openly advocated for royal change – a risky step in a kingdom where the king is revered as semi-divine and immune to criticism.

In Thailand, where the crown is ostensibly above politics and legally enshrined to be kept in “revered reverence,” changing the lese majeste legislation, which carries penalties of up to 15 years in jail for each perceived insult to the monarchy, had been off-limits for decades.

However, the opposition Pheu Thai party sparked debate on the taboo subject this week, with key parties rapidly responding after it recommended a legislative investigation of how it claimed the law was being exploited to punish a large number of opponents of the royalist administration.

According to a tally provided by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, at least 155 people have been charged for lese majeste since the student protests began last year, including 12 children.

“The legislation against lese majeste has become a stumbling block in Thai politics. It was bound to happen, “Chulalongkorn University political expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak said.

“In the future, this will be the most important issue in determining Thailand’s political future.”


The Pheu Thai party’s call for a parliamentary review drew strong reaction among royalist conservatives.

Major parties in the ruling coalition issued their own statements objecting to amending the law, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief.

“It’s a security matter for our country,” he said. “We do not want to destroy something that is revered by Thai people.”

Prayuth’s government has denied misusing the law. The palace, which has a longstanding policy of not commenting on the issue, could not be reached for comment.

Thailand’s media has long self-censored on issues of the monarchy but in a rare move, Thursday’s Bangkok Post newspaper carried an infographic of the major parties’ positions on lese majeste, under the headline “to change or not to change”.

Opposition parties Move Forward and the Seri Ruam Thai have also accused the government of abusing the royal law to go after opponents, and they called for punishments to be less severe.

In February, 44 Move Forward lawmakers sought a reduction in the maximum sentence from 15 years to one year, or a 300,000 baht ($8,982) fine, or both. Their effort was shot down by parliament, which said it was unconstitutional.

Stirring the debate too was influential tycoon and self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai’s de facto founder. This week, Thaksin voiced his support for preserving a law that he himself has been accused of breaking, while calling for changes in how it was applied.

Political scientist Wanwichit Boonprong said a push for a review is unlikely to gain much traction in parliament, though it has forced other parties to take a firm position on one of the country’s most sensitive issues.

But Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, secretary-general of the student-led progressive movement, a backer of the Move Forward party, said opposition efforts were not bold enough, and it was time to abolish the law altogether.

“The party needs to be avant garde,” Piyabutr said on Twitter, adding Move Forward should be pressing a more progressive agenda.

  • Reuters