The most popular political party in Thailand won its following last year, and the ire of the conservative establishment, by campaigning to end military rule and to weaken the draconian law that prohibits criticism of the country’s monarchy.
But on Wednesday the Move Forward Party and its push for change were dealt a severe blow. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the party’s proposal to scale back the royal defamation law violated the Constitution because it was an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. It ordered Move Forward to stop all activities related to amending the law.
The verdict, in effect, lays out explicitly that the royal defamation law is sacrosanct for Thailand’s conservative establishment, a nexus of royalists, military officials and wealthy elites. Their motives were already clear last year, when they moved quickly to block Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, from becoming prime minister, pushed the party into the opposition even though it won the general election and installed a coalition of allies into power.
Wednesday’s ruling leaves Move Forward vulnerable to more legal challenges, which could pave the way for its eventual disbandment. It could also set the stage for a showdown between Thailand’s progressive opposition and the establishment. Move Forward and its supporters argue that the royal defamation law — known as Article 112 — needs to be amended because it is being used as a political weapon, while the establishment says that any change to the law could lead to abolishing the monarchy altogether.
These faultlines were exposed in 2020 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets after the Constitutional Court disbanded the Future Forward Party, the predecessor of Move Forward. Protesters called for checks on the king’s power, breaking a social taboo in a country where the monarch has always been revered.
The court ruled that the pledge to change the law made by Mr. Pita and Move Forward during last year’s election campaign was a move designed to overthrow Thailand’s political system “with the king as a head of state.”
“Exercising freedom must not conflict with peace, order, good morals of the people, and must not violate the rights of other people,” said one of the judges on the nine-member court as he read out the verdict.
Mr. Pita told reporters on Wednesday that changing the law was not an attempt “to cause the deterioration of the monarchy,” adding that Thai society had lost out on an opportunity “to use the Parliament to discuss this with maturity.”
He added: “This is not just about me, personally. This is not just about our party, but this is about the future. It’s about the health of Thai democracy and the political landscape going forward.”
The party’s supporters say it has been unfairly targeted.
“I believe what Move Forward has been asking is not to abolish the monarchy, but instead it wants to protect the monarchy and put the institution above politics,” Chayanut Panmak, 62, said outside the court before the verdict was made public. “At the moment, anybody can use 112 to report anybody. This is pulling the monarchy down.”
Move Forward was the first political party to make amending the lèse-majesté law a major campaign push. The law criminalizing criticism of the monarchy is one of the harshest in the world and carries a minimum sentence of three years if violated — the only law in Thailand that imposes a minimum jail term — and a maximum of 15 years for one count.
Mr. Pita and Move Forward pledged to cut the jail terms of violators of the law and designate the Bureau of the Royal Household as the only agency allowed to file lawsuits. (Any Thai citizen is able to file complaints under the current version of the law.)
After Move Forward won the election last May, the military-appointed Senate, which appoints the prime minister, blocked Mr. Pita in an initial vote. Hours before a follow-up vote, the Constitutional Court suspended him from Parliament, pending a review of a case in which he was accused of violating election law because he owned shares in a defunct media company.
Mr. Pita was reinstated as a lawmaker last week after the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor.
Following the 2020 protests, the authorities charged at least 262 people for violating the law, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal watchdog. Earlier this month, a Thai man was sentenced to 50 years in jail for sharing content that was deemed offensive to the monarchy, the harshest penalty to date imposed under the law.
Ryn Jirenuwat contributed reporting.