By Saksith Saiyasombut

The debate about Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, gains more traction with several groups either discussing or demanding to at least amend the law, which forbids any discussion about the royal family and can be punished with up to 15 years in prison – and there’s at least one discerning person who begs to differ…

First off was a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT) on Tuesday evening on that very subject, with veteran social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, academic David Streckfuss and Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International Thailand. Particularly the presence of Zawacki and his views on the law raised some high interest. More background on that at Bangkok Pundit. We will have more on the FCCT panel in the coming days.

In a separate development, the National Human Rights Council’s (NHRC) sub-committee on civil and political rights has announced to look into the content of the law and how it’s been used.

NHRC sub-committee chairman Niran Pitakwatchara said on Monday that the controversial use of the lese majeste law was urgently called into question, since it could be a condition leading to violence in society.

The NHRC sub-committee held its first hearing on the problem of the application of the lese majeste law last week with some 60 participants, including those being imprisoned, harassed and implicated as a result of people citing Article 112.

Dr Niran said after the four-hour-long session that the sub-committee was hopeful that in the next few months its research into the subject would be completed and a report forwarded to the government and the public for consideration.

He said the sub-committee, which included well-known human rights activists Somchai Homla-or, Jon Ungphakorn, Boonthan T. Verawongse, and Sunai Phasuk, would examine human rights abuses in the cases of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a trade unionist and a red-shirt editor of the Voice of Thaksin, and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a senior historian at Thammasat University [as a study platform]. (…)

“Dealing with the issue has never been an easy matter and I could not pledge how much we can do to resolve the problem as we are also surmounting internal self-adjustment difficulties within the (NHRC) office,” said the chairman of the sub-committee on civil and political rights.

NHRC to study lese majeste clause“, Bangkok Post, May 23, 2011

The two cases mentioned in the article are of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, the editor of a pro-Thaksin publication and a trade unionist who most likely got arrested for collection signatures for a petition to repeal Article 112, and Thammasat historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a vocal critic agains the lèse majesté law, who went public saying that he has been threatened and eventually charged, possibly for the contents wrote in an open letter to Princess Chulabhorn about a recent, much discussed TV interview.

Another story dealing with this law was published earlier this week, when a group of 100 young writers joined in an open letter calling to amend the law and stop its use as a political weapon.

Signatories include wellknown youngergeneration mainstream writers such as Probed Yoon and Waning Prasertkul [sic! the whole sentence!]. In an open letter issued yesterday, they urged other writers, irrespective of their political ideology, to defend freedom of expression as a fundamental aspect of a free society.

“We believe you agree that enjoying freedom of expression and freedom of expression is a fundamental part of being writers in a democratic society, disregarding whatever genre of writing one subscribes to,” part of the open letter reads. It also called on the army to stop using the monarchy institution as an excuse to crush its opponents.

100 young writers join forces calling for change in lese majeste law“, The Nation, May 21, 2011

The authors are actually named Wansing Prasertkul, Prabda Yoon – but that can happen at The Nation, especially since they misspelled the name of the son of The Nation’s executive editor Suthichai Yoon! Many of these writers, including Binla Sankalakiri and Sakariya Amataya, are winners of the prestigious S.E.A. Write Award. The full open letter in Thai can be read here.

So, all in all a lot of debate about Article 112, that undoubtedly has severely damaged Thailand’s freedom of speech in both the real and the online world and with very few people in power realizing that the more they stress the need to protect the royal institution from a perceived threat, the more it apparently backfires.

More staggering is how self-proclaimed herald of ‘Thai-ness‘ and culture minister Niphit Intarasombat responded to this petition in Matichon, which the colleagues at Prachatai have translated:

On 22 May, Niphit Intarasombat, Minister of Culture and the Democrat Party candidate for Phatthalung, said, in response to a public call to amend the law made by a group of writers last week, that he did not see any problem with the lèse majesté law and its enforcement. (…)

‘I’ve never seen Article 112 being used as a political tool, and over 99% of politicians have no problem with the law. I’ve travelled to several countries which used to have monarchies. People there all said in unison that they regretted that they no longer had monarchs, and they wished to have them restored as head of state and a unifying figure. But Thailand still has a monarch as head of state and a unifying force, so we should have the law to protect the institution,’ he said.

Minister of Culture sees no problem with lèse majesté law“, Prachatai, May 24, 2011

So, he claims to have never seen the law being used as a political weapon? He probably isn’t aware that this law actually politicizes the royal institution to a worrying extent. Second, of course why should any politician be against this law and commit career and social suicide, especially everyone since seems to overbid themselves with their loyalty (also arguably a political tool). And finally, I don’t know to which former kingdoms he has traveled to and to whom he has spoken to (surely he doesn’t ask the common man on a European street, does he?), but I cannot imagine that many people in France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Persia (Iran), Iraq, Mexico etc. all want their former monarchs back?

P.S.: Niphit is now the second government minister after finance minister Korn who has openly asked if a former monarchy is sad that they have no king anymore. If only the countries in question could respond…

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.