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Laws and constitution in Thailand

Updated On: Apr 13, 2007

Thaksin seems to have cleared his first legal trouble. 

Three charges of lese majeste – insulting the monarchy – stemming from comments he made during last year’s political upheaval were dropped. The lese majeste charges, however, are only one of four accusations used by the Thai military junta to justify the coup on 19 September 2006 to topple the Thaksin regime. Corruption, intervention in independent bodies and causing national disunity are the other main accusations against the former PM.

Thai state prosecutors cite the lack of evidence of malicious intent in dropping the charges.  To offset criticisms of this ruling, Attorney General Patchara Yuthidhamma-damrong has come out to make his stance clear that there should be no political interference with the ruling: "Prosecutors want to remind everyone, particularly those in the leadership or executive positions, to refrain from comments which could be construed as offensive to the revered institution".

Despite the government’s position and the due process of the law, some critics have cited other cases where convictions were made on lighter evidence. For example, in March 2007, the Chiang Mai Provincial Court convicted a Swiss man of lese majeste and sentenced him to 10 years in jail for defacing five pictures of Their Majesties the King and Queen in late 2006. For that case, the court battle had not focused on intent, even after the defendant confessed to being drunk when he committed his deeds. 

In addition, recent policies indicate that there is a greater desire to shield the monarchy from disrespect with the Information and Communication Technology Ministry banning many websites and chatrooms for posting disrespectful messages and pictures, classifying them as lese majeste.

Discussions of Thai lese majeste law are still taboo in Thai society and restricted mainly to Western commentators who sometimes question if they have outlived its original purpose and become a tool of suppression of views. This was recently discussed by David Streckfuss in his commentary carried in the Bangkok Post. The commentator noted that following the bloody suppression of Oct 6, 1976, lese majeste punishment is now increased to a minimum of three and a maximum of 15 year's imprisonment. He further pointed out the pressure on the authorities such as the police and prosecutors to act out of fear as the same lese majeste charges can be levelled at them for non-action.

Such foreign views of the venerable Thai institution as expressed in the article, and subtle criticisms of the less majeste laws, may not be shared by most Thais, although increasing criticisms of Prem, the President of the Privy Council, have some wondering if even the highly revered institution, the monarchy, is also increasingly under stress.

On another development related to Thai laws and institution, some details of the draft constitution have been revealed following a vote by the drafters of the new constitution in favour of elected Prime Minister.  There were earlier revelations that some conservatives within the drafting committee were pushing for provisions for appointed prime minister, which liberals had warned would not go down well with the public. 

The constitution drafting committee has also proposed in the new constitution to reduce the number of MPs and senators, and provision that parliamentarians have at least a bachelor's degree.  This would be supported by the people according to an ad hoc committee of the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) which conducted provincial-level forums and opinion surveys and surveyed the opinions of 36,324 individuals throughout Thailand.  There was also strong support for the scrapping of the party-list system, for senators to be appointed not elected and an end to subsidies for political parties.

These are likely to be main features in the upcoming debates on constitutional changes.  By 19 April, copies of the draft constitution will be released and distributed and discussions and deliberations within the Constitutional Drafting Committee and the wider Constitutional Drafting Assembly will take place.  The public will get to vote on the Constitution in a referendum probably in September.

This is just the beginning of a long and convoluted process of political change and recovery taking place in Thailand as it struggles to cope with the mess left Thaksin and the aftermath of the 19 September coup.  (12 April 2007)

Sources:

Draft Thai Charter calls for elected PM (The Straits Times, 12 April 2007)

Focus: Is it time to discuss lese majeste law? (Bangkok Post, 11 April 2007)

Lese majeste charges get Swiss man 10 yrs (The Nation, 11 April 2007)

Thaksin clears 1st legal hurdle (The Nation, 11 April 2007)

Prosecutors explain dropping Thaksin charges (Bangkok Post, 11 April 2007)

Strong majority favours elected prime minister (Bangkok Post, 11 April 2007)