Opinion: A dangerous ruling by the Constitutional Court but the struggle continues

Yesterday was one of the most disheartening days in Thailand’s history of democratic progress. Across the country, we watched in astonishment as the court sent out a deeply worrying signal.

Some of us didn’t fully see it coming.

The Constitutional Court ruled that three prominent pro-democracy activists, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, Anon Nampa, and Panupong Jadnok, were seeking to overthrow the country’s constitutional monarchy by asking for reform of Thailand’s conservative institutions.

Although the democracy movement has made much progress since the 2014 coup, and even more since last year, lately we’ve become accustomed to some degree of disappointment.

But this felt different.

Some of us are reluctant optimists that view Thailand’s political landscape from a safe distance. It has been disheartening, to say the least, observing how the Kingdom regresses further in its attempt at democratization. It has become increasingly difficult to separate ourselves from some of these events without conceding our urge to speak.

The court’s message is loud and clear; young Thais do nothave freedom of speech. All citizens must abide by the rules of government with the King as the head of state. And if any person, young or old, questions this authority they will be labeled as an enemy of the nation and must suffer the consequences.

This decision is not just a devastating blow to the pro-democracy movement, but ultimately a signal of a shift back to Thailand’s authoritarian past.

And indeed the decision made by the panel of judges had all of the elements of a dystopian narrative. Three selfless activists put their lives on the line for the future of a country only to be met by a swift and unfathomable power.

Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch summarized the event succinctly.

“The ruling today is essentially a judicial coup that replaces constitutional monarchy in Thailand with absolute monarchy,” he said. 

And the weight of this moment feels as such.

Some of these activists were already facing a century behind bars for multiple counts of violating section 112.

But it seems that it wasn’t enough.

Tyrell Haberkorn, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and specialist on Thai dissident politics told me that we’re witnessing a fundamentally dangerous moment:

“The Constitutional Court’s sleight of hand in equating the activist’s call for reform with revolt — defined in Article 113 of the Criminal Code and punishable with up to life imprisonment or the death penalty — is legally and politically dangerous,” she said.

“To put this in the starkest terms, if the Office of the Attorney General were to bring charges on the basis of this ruling, [the pro-] democracy activists could face the death penalty for the peaceful expression of opinion. That the Constitutional Court has made this ruling with the stated goal of the preservation of democracy is both cynical and incorrect. Democracy and criminalization of peaceful expression of opinion are not compatible.”

This incompatibility is not going to go unnoticed by the masses. It’s very possible that this decision could backfire for the state.

The establishment has made a habit of continuously underestimating the resilience of Thailand’s young liberal generation.

And it’s unlikely that this is the end of their struggle. For the pro-democracy protesters, the court’s decision is just another page turned in a longer struggle for truth and freedom.

They know that time is on their side, and despite this step backward, they are counting down the days.


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