Opinion: FCCT’s 112 debate reveals unbridgeable divide between royalists and the liberals

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I went into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand’s (FCCT) panel discussion on Thailand’s political crisis and the use of Article 112 expecting fiery exchanges.

While the debate did not disappoint on that front, I came out of it feeling more fatalistic than ever about the future of Thailand.

The event offered a rare opportunity for the public to learn more about the “taboo” subject that is Article 112 and for both sides of the political divide to come to some sort of mutual understanding. But it was the steadfast views of the royalist debaters that ended any chance at compromise.

Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the Thai Pakdi Party and one of the more vocal proponents of lese majeste in recent times, based his argument on the uniqueness and superiority of the Thai tradition which justified the use of Article 112 to protect the monarchy.

While the incompatibility of Thai and universal values has long been known, it was Warong’s interpretation of the word “Chang Chart” (nation haters) that defied logic. For him, just the act of a youngster not “wai”-ing the seniors was enough to brand that person as such.

And while Warong tried to back up his argument for the use of 112 with examples of laws protecting the Head of State in Western countries, his point was deftly refuted by David Streckfuss, who pointed out that those laws were nowhere near as harsh as Article 112.

If you think Warong sounds like a man still stuck in the Cold War mentality, Arnond Sakvorawich, a NIDA academic whose recent entrance into the Twitterverse caused quite a commotion among the liberals, was arguably worse. Arnond was the quintessential Thai ultra-royalist: confrontational, uncompromising, and blindly loyal to the royal institution.

Arnond’s argument for the retention of 112, while based on loosely relevant legal principles such as mala in se and mala prohibita, was overshadowed by vitriol-laden swipes aimed at the liberals, in particular Rangsiman Rome, one of the panelists. In this light, Arnond is nothing more than a slightly more sophisticated version of your run-of-the-mill Salims commonly found on popular Facebook pages.

In fact, it was the liberals, and in no small part the interpreter, who tried to keep the discussion civil.

Rangsiman Rome, a future forward MP and virtually the one-man army for the liberals in the event, was at his resolute best. Rome based his argument on reforming Article 112 on “The King can do no wrong because the king can do nothing” principle, the notion that Arnond was quick to dismiss. Rome also went on to highlight the six problems associated with 112, chief of which was the disproportionality between the offence and the punishment.

The greatest strength of Rome’s argument however, lies in common sense. In what world does verbal “crime” (if you can even call it that) carry even more penalty than mass murder? (Case in point: Khun Anchan’s 87-year jail term for sharing clips deemed insulting to the monarchy on her Facebook page) And while Rome conceded that tradition plays no small part when it comes to formulating a political system suitable for a country, tradition should never take precedence over human rights and freedom of expression.

Post-debate questions raised by Yan Marchal, a Frenchman famous for his clip parodying the NCPO, and Mr. Thanee Sangrat, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered both sides a chance to discuss ways in which the royalists and liberals can seek some common ground. Again, it was the royalists who refused to budge an inch, with both Arnond and Warong proposing for an even harsher enforcement of Article 112. On the other hand, Rome cited the Future Forward Party’s proposal for an amendment of such law as a way to both bridge the divide and protect the monarchy.

And while I believe the so-called “progressive royalists” who the liberals could reason with, still exist, the fact that the likes of Warong and Arnond still dominate headlines does not bode well for the country where the young feel more at home with the western ideals of human rights and freedom of expression than the hierarchical “Thainess” that the reactionary right has been championing.

And unless the conservatives are willing to shed some of their Thainess in favour of more humanity, true democracy may never take root in the Land of Smiles.

By TP Pensri

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