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The Monarchy’s Influence: Thailand’s Desire for Democratic Reform

by Rahil M
0 comment

Although the physical symbols of reverence for the monarchy remain, such as the king’s portraits displayed in public places, subtle changes have emerged.

The role of the monarchy in Thailand is at the center of a growing deadlock that has the potential to push Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy into crisis. Reformers are once again attempting to challenge the power grip of the royalist military establishment, leading to a contentious political landscape.

Despite achieving a remarkable victory alongside its allies in the May 14 election against pro-military parties, the progressive Move Forward party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, is facing an uncertain path to forming a government. One of the main reasons for this is Move Forward’s proposal to amend Thailand’s “lese majeste” law, Article 112 of the criminal code, which imposes severe penalties, including up to 15 years in prison, for insulting the monarchy.

In a country where reverence for the monarch has long been promoted as a central pillar of national identity, the idea of amending the lese majeste law is considered radical by many. Minority parties and members of the appointed Senate have pledged to block Pita from becoming the prime minister, citing the proposed amendment as disrespectful and offensive to the monarchy.

Critics argue that the military has historically invoked its duty to defend the monarchy to justify its interventions in politics and has used the lese majeste as a tool to suppress dissent. The presence of a giant portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in the parliamentary chamber further emphasizes the significance of the monarchy in Thai politics.

The battle over the prime ministerial position could lead to a prolonged deadlock due to the influence of the 250-seat Senate, appointed by the previous junta, which has the power to block the progressive alliance from securing its preferred candidate through a combined vote of both chambers. The current system was established in a constitution drafted after the 2014 coup led by then-army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, whose party suffered a significant defeat in the May election.

Much depends on the actions of Move Forward’s main ally, the second-place winner Pheu Thai party. If Pita’s bid appears doomed, Pheu Thai must decide whether to stick with Move Forward or seek other coalition partners. The silence of King Vajiralongkorn on the lese majeste issue since the election adds further uncertainty. However, the proposed amendment by Move Forward reflects the cultural changes that have swept through Thailand in recent years, challenging the traditional portrayal of the monarchy as almost semi-divine.

Although the physical symbols of reverence for the monarchy remain, such as the king’s portraits displayed in public places, subtle changes have emerged. Some cinemas no longer play the royal anthem before every film, and satirical memes critical of the government and monarchy are shared on social media platforms. The shift in political dynamics was driven by student-led protests in 2020, initially against military rule but eventually extending to criticism of the military-monarchy nexus and the king himself.

Move Forward, seizing on the momentum of the protests, called for the reform of the lese majeste law as activists faced charges under it. The prosecution of numerous individuals under Article 112 brought the issue into the mainstream discourse, highlighting the deep fault line in Thai politics concerning the role of the monarchy in the country’s political order.

The challenge for Move Forward lies in securing enough support in the Senate, where many members are expected to vote against Pita for prime minister. With their alliance of eight parties holding a total of 312 seats in the lower House of Representatives, Move Forward and Pheu Thai may fall short of the 376 votes needed o secure the premiership. Alternative scenarios include Pheu Thai nominating its own prime ministerial candidate while maintaining the alliance or seeking other coalition partners in the lower house without Move Forward.

The use of the lese majeste law to suppress dissent has had unintended consequences. Critics argue that by overusing Article 112, the conservatives have dragged the royal institution deeper into politics. Move Forward contends that amending the law will prevent its misuse and ultimately benefit the monarchy. The party proposes reducing the penalty to a maximum of one year in prison and limiting the right to file a complaint to the Royal Household Bureau.

While the outcome of the deadlock remains uncertain, one thing is clear: the role of the monarchy in Thai politics has become a contentious and divisive issue. The path to resolving the deadlock will require careful negotiations, consideration of public sentiment, and a delicate balance between respecting tradition and embracing societal change. The fate of Thailand’s political landscape hangs in the balance, and the decisions made in the coming months will shape the country’s future direction.

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