BANGKOK. When Thais go to the polls on Sunday, they will vote in a closely contested election seen in part as a referendum on whether it is illegal to criticize the Thai monarchy.
Thailand has one of the strictest laws in the world against defaming or insulting the king and other members of the royal family. Once considered taboo, the subject of the monarchy came to the fore after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to call for a review of the institution’s power in 2020.
The protests represented both sides of a bitter struggle to define the crown’s role in modern Thailand. The election could determine whether the Southeast Asian nation of 72 million revives its once-vibrant democracy or slips further into authoritarian rule with royalists firmly in power.
On one side of the debate are conservative political parties, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who has ruled Thailand for nine years after seizing power in a coup. He and his supporters argue that changing the law could lead to the end of the monarchy altogether and have vowed to protect the royal family.
On the other side is the progressive “Move Forward” party, which comes in second and claims the law needs to be changed because it is being used as a political weapon. Several young people who participated in the 2020 protests are now running as candidates with the Move Forward party.
“Perhaps one of the deepest misconceptions in Thai society is about the monarchy,” said Sunay Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and prime ministerial candidate, is treading carefully. His father, a populist billionaire, is one of Thailand’s most divisive politicians. He has been living in self-imposed exile since being ousted in a 2006 coup and can only return to Thailand with the king’s permission.
Royalists have consistently accused Thaksin of wanting to topple the monarchy, which he denies. Paetongtarn said his party, Pheu Thai, would not repeal the law protecting the monarchy from criticism, but that reforms should be discussed openly in parliament.
Opinion polls show Prayuth’s United Nation of Thailand party trailing in third place behind Pheu Thai, which topped the polls. In recent weeks, the “Move Forward” party has registered an increase in support. it now selects closed #2.
Move Forward is the biggest party seeking to change the law, angering conservatives who accuse it of overturning the monarchy. The party wants to reduce jail terms for law breakers and designate the Crown Bureau as the only agency to allow prosecution. (Any Thai citizen can file complaints under the current version of the law).
Conservative politicians have threatened to disband Move Forward. The previous version of the party, “Future Forward” party, was dissolved in 2020 by the Constitutional Court. In a sign of how sensitive the subject of reform has become, Move Forward has tried to soften its stance, saying royal changes will not be a priority in its campaign.
For decades, the monarchy and the military have had a symbiotic relationship, with the military often reminding the public that it is the true guardian of the Thai crown. Thais are taught from a young age that they must love the king and that any criticism of the monarchy is strictly forbidden.
But today, many Thais no longer stand by when the royal anthem is played in public places such as movie theaters. Royalist Marketplace, a Facebook group created to satirize the monarchy, had more than 1 million members before Facebook blocked access to it in 2020, citing a request from the Thai government.
The law, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy, carries a minimum sentence of three years, the only law in Thailand that sets a minimum prison term, and a maximum of 15 years. After the 2020 protests, authorities charged at least 223 people, including 17 minors, with violating the law, known as Article 112.
Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, a 21-year-old law student, was accused of breaking the rule in 2022 after he and his friends conducted a survey asking whether the royal motorcade caused inconvenience to Bangkok residents.
In recent weeks, he has pressed political parties on whether they will amend the law, which he favors repealing after the election. Tantavan was arrested on Wednesday.
“I feel we don’t need any law that specifically protects an individual or a family,” said Tantawan, who went on hunger strike earlier this year to protest the government. “He is a man like us, not a god or a demigod.”
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayawarangkun, who ascended the throne in 2016, is not as beloved as his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years. While Bhumibol was revered in Thailand, his son spent most of his time in Germany, although he has been seen more often in public since the 2020 protests.
After the protests, Prayuth ordered all government officials to “use every law” to prosecute anyone who criticizes the monarchy. Royalists stepped up their campaign against people they accused of insulting the crown, filing more complaints and attacking anti-monarchist activists.
In 2021, Worong Dechgitwigrom, a former doctor, founded Thailand’s first far-right party, Thai Pakdi, in response to what he called the “Three Finger Crowd”, referring to the three-finger salute adopted by young Thais as a symbol of resistance. During the 2020 protests.
Now he says the current law protecting the monarchy does not go far enough because it is limited to protecting the four main members of the royal family. Thailand’s former kings, princes, princesses and the word “monarchy” should also be protected, he said.
Although Warong’s views are considered extreme, he says he has collected about 6,000 to 7,000 signatures for his proposal and is confident he can get the 10,000 signatures needed to pass the bill in the House of Representatives.
Warong says people need to understand that the Thai monarchy is distinct. He recalled France’s former monarchy, which was characterized by oppression of its people. “But ours are like father and children,” he said. “We have good feelings together, no bad feelings.”
Those views are at odds with how young people feel about the king. During the 2020 protests, protesters questioned the wealth of the royal family, one of the richest in the world.
Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said it would be difficult for Warong and his party to lead a successful campaign supporting a constitutional monarchy because many young people “don’t see what’s in it”.
“If you can’t talk it out, it gives more room and more ammunition to the students, to Thaksin’s supporters, to say, ‘We are more democratic,'” Kassitt said, referring to calls to reform the monarchy.
Arnon Sakvoravich, assistant professor of statistics at the National Institute for Development, said that maintaining Article 112 is necessary because the king and the royal family do not protect themselves from criticism.
“It’s a different culture because in Thailand people believe that the king is their parent and parents never hurt their children,” said Arnaud, who is known for his royalist views. “So there must be people to protect the king.”
In their zeal to defend the monarchy, many royalists may end up doing more harm to the institution than protecting it.
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, head of Chulalongkorn University’s department of government, said it was “very unstable and risky” for parties such as Thailand’s Pakdi to use the monarchy as a campaign platform.
“Although the monarchy is above politics, it is now embroiled in division,” he said. “It will polarize voters and parties into two camps, inevitably.”