BANGKOK -- Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha may have inadvertently set the stage for a public debate on Thailand's lese-majeste law, which critics say has been weaponized by the kingdom's ultra-royalists and archconservatives to crush free speech.
Considered taboo even among far-right groups, Section 112 of the criminal code threatens jail terms of between 3 to 15 years for anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent."
"What I want all Thais to know is that lately Section 112 has not been used," Prayuth said on Monday, as he was leaving a public event in Bangkok. "Do you know why? Because the king has mercy and advised us not to exercise the law."
Prayuth's admission, the first such public remarks from a government leader, appears to confirm a change in stance that had been known only to select circles in Bangkok.
The king has "instructed me personally over the past two to three years to refrain from the use of the law," said the retired general and former commander in chief of the military junta that seized power in 2014.
Prayuth's words served as fodder for commentary in the country's media while creating a buzz on social media and among progressive political activists.
"The news that Section 112 will stop being used against critics of the monarchy is welcome, but it may not strike at the heart of the problem," argued the Bangkok Post, an English-language daily and a pillar of the establishment, in an editorial. "Since the law is problematic in itself, amending it does indeed seem the best, most logical way to avoid its abuse."
David Streckfuss, an American scholar who specializes in Thai politics, said the discussion over the lese-majeste law suggests that country has reached an inflection point.
"It is surprising at the apparent ease by which a long-suppressed discussion has bubbled to the surface," said Streckfuss, the author of "Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lese-majeste."
"We are witnessing a strange intersection of different things going on politically in Thailand, and that has opened up the space for this discussion of 112, including public acknowledgment about the problem of the law."
Other observers credit the country's politically emboldened youth, who have used social media platforms like Twitter to express views critical of the Thai royal family, providing the impetus for change.
"There are hundreds of thousands of young Thais who have already been talking openly without the fear of censorship or the lese-majeste law," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank. "This is a new phenomenon and they are driving this momentum -- it would have been unthinkable a decade ago, this public discussion about lese-majeste law."
The use of the more-than-100-year-old law has had a chilling effect on the country's political landscape. Cases of alleged defamation against the monarchy exploded soon after a 2006 coup, with allies of the military regime at the time and ultra-royalists using the law as a weapon to silence critics.
Between the 2006 putsch and the early years into the 2014 putsch, over 700 lese-majeste cases were filed by the police. Trials were veiled from public scrutiny, and, at times, held in military courts. The authorities justified the charges as efforts to protect the monarchy from defamation.
In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Office said the number of people being investigated for lese-majeste offenses was more than twice the number that had been investigated during the previous 12 years. That year, a court condemned a Thai man to a 70-year jail sentence for multiple violations of the law, the harshest sentence given.
Thai political analysts note that the spike in Section 112 cases marked the last decade of the ailing former monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016 after a seven-decade reign. He was portrayed with reverence and even regarded by some as a semi-divine figure.
But by 2018, human rights groups noted the pivot in the enforcement of the lese-majeste law as King Maha Vajiralongkorn set the tone as his father's successor. An appeals court overturned previous lese-majeste convictions and charges were dropped for Thais who were allegedly involved in an anti-monarchy republican plot. By the end of last year, rights groups acknowledged that no new lese-majeste cases had been filed for two years.
Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand's foremost Buddhist scholar and social critic, who has been slapped with five lese-majeste charges since 1985, alerted the country to the shift in thinking by the new monarch as he was consolidating his power. "I talked with him for one-and-a-half hours and told him that [Section] 112 is not good for the monarchy," the 86-year-old Sulak told the Nikkei Asian Review of his rare, private audience with the 67-year-old monarch two years ago. "He came across as being very decisive."
Subsequently, Sulak posted on Facebook: "His Majesty has even instructed the chief justice and the attorney general to bring to an end to prosecutions invoking Section 112 and to not allow it be used as a political tool."
But Bangkok-based diplomats are not as sanguine about the prospect of free speech opening up in the country. They point to other laws, such as the Computer Crime Act and the sedition law, which have been weaponized by the authorities to target critics of the ruling establishment.
Since the 2014 coup, over 110 Thais have been charged with sedition, according to Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), a local rights watchdog. An equally high number of Thais -- about 100 -- have fled the country fearing prosecution for their political activism since that year, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a Bangkok-based rights campaigner.
"You may not have 112, but you still have the CCA (Computer Crime Act), the sedition law, or even more chilling the threat of Thai political activists and critics who have fled to neighboring countries being disappeared," said one diplomat. "So censorship remains in another guise."