Freedom of expression: Thai election promises to expand human rights

Rebecca RootMonday 19 June 2023

Image caption: Poster reads, 14 May election 2023, Enter the cross booth, Change Thailand.

The Thai general election, held in mid-May, has been hailed in some quarters as a ‘watershed’ moment with the potential to expand rights for the country’s citizens. But the winning party will need to navigate the country’s complex political system and claim power to achieve this.

On 14 May, Move Forward, an anti-military political party led by 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, unexpectedly won the most votes in the election, signalling a desire from the public to move away from almost a decade of military rule imposed by a coup in 2014, towards a more democratic and progressive model of governance. ‘It was a breakout from a two-decade cycle of elections and coups revolving around exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party machine’, explains Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science and international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s previous leadership had seen freedom of expression – especially for human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians – limited and criminalised. To bring in change, Move Forward must first form a majority government. Since the election, it has worked with other pro-democracy parties to create a coalition. In July, members of the Thai House of Representatives and the Senate will vote on whether Limjaroenrat can take up the role of prime minister. The current Senate, however, was appointed by the military following the last election in 2019.

Move Forward hopes to install what Pongsudhirak calls a radical legal agenda to transform the political system and ‘get rid of undue prerogatives and privileges’. A 23-point plan – published following the election – states the coalition’s aims as being to create a more democratic constitution; eradicate the role of the military in the political landscape; reform the police, military, judiciary and civil service; re-classify recently de-criminalised cannabis as a narcotic; address monopolisation within certain industries; legalise same-sex marriage; and eliminate mandatory military conscription.

In general, the period of time immediately following an election is a vulnerable time for the rule of law

Sarah Hutchinson
Co-Chair, IBA Rule of Law Forum

If the coalition government is ‘able to repeal discriminatory legislation, particularly targeting same-sex marriages, this would be a significant step forward in respecting the rights and freedoms of all individuals irrespective of sexual orientation’, says Sarah Hutchinson, Co-Chair of the IBA Rule of Law Forum. While Thailand has a reputation for being more LGBTQI+-friendly than neighbouring countries, same-sex marriage remains unrecognised and Thai law doesn’t allow for gender to be changed on legal documents.

Move Forward wishes to repeal Thailand’s lèse-majesté legislation in a bid to protect democracy and improve freedom of expression. The current lèse-majesté law makes insulting the country’s royal family a crime. In 2021, one individual received an 87-year sentence for reposting videos on social media containing what were considered defamatory remarks about the monarchy.

Since a wave of pro-democracy protests took place in 2022, the number of people charged under this law has increased. According to the International Federation for Human Rights and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, as of June 2022, over 200 people had been charged under the lèse-majesté law in the previous 18-month period.

The rule of law, says Hutchinson, requires that all forms of government are subject to challenge by an independent judiciary. The removal of the lèse-majesté legislation would, therefore, take the country closer to establishing the rule of law. Hutchinson highlights that independent press commentary has suggested that the idea of repealing the lèse-majesté law has more support among younger Thai voters.

But certain senators have said they’ll vote against Limjaroenrat for prime minister if there’s an intention to repeal the law, while mention of removing the lèse-majesté legislation wasn’t included in the 23-point plan, signalling potential disagreement on the subject within the coalition. ‘Coalition partners successfully pushed for language on amending this law to be taken out of their coalition memorandum of understanding, and Move Forward has said that they will have to tackle this priority independently, potentially without support from their own governing partners’, explains Ken Lohatepanont, a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan.

Another obstacle facing Limjaroenrat is a probe by Thailand’s Election Commission, which announced in mid-June that it’s investigating whether he was knowingly unfit to register as a parliamentary candidate on the basis of his ownership of shares in a media company, which isn’t permitted under election rules. Limjaroenrat denies any wrongdoing and has stated that the shares were inherited from his father and later transferred.

Lohatepanont says that, as there’s still no guarantee Move Forward will be able to form a government, talk of policy changes is therefore somewhat premature. There’s also still the prospect that should Move Forward fail to get the votes needed, another party could set about forming and proposing its own coalition government in partnership with pro-military parties.

‘Unfortunately, we have seen repeated attempts by outgoing establishments in many jurisdictions to challenge election outcomes’, says Hutchinson. ‘In general, the period of time immediately following an election is a vulnerable time for the rule of law.’ She believes it’s the duty of the international legal community ‘to continue to shine a light on the situation in Thailand to ensure that the rule of law is respected and any new governing coalition has time to properly establish itself free from military intervention’.

Image credit: Nattanee Srisuk/AdobeStock.com