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Thai King’s Son Signals Openness to Criticism of Controversial Royal Defamation Law

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An exhibition in New York about a controversial Thai law that criminalizes insulting the country’s monarchy welcomed an unlikely visitor this week: the son of Thailand’s king.

Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, the estranged second son of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, showed up Monday to the “Faces of Victims of 112,” an exhibition at Columbia University that highlights stories of people who have either been imprisoned or gone into exile because of Section 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, a royal defamation law that observers say has been largely wielded against political dissent.

Lèse-majesté, which can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in jail, has covered a wide range of acts deemed offensive to the Thai royal family—from tongue-in-cheek jabs at the king (or at the king’s dog) to sharing social media posts critical of the monarchy. As frustrations with Thailand’s military-backed government reached a fever pitch in 2020 and 2021, protests swept the country and the repeal of Section 112 became a rallying cry. Since then, according to the organization Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, more than 250 people have been charged under Section 112, including children as young as 14 years old, for their political expression.

Read More: I'm Facing Life in Prison for Violence Against the Thai Queen. I'm Innocent

Most recently, the law was at the center of Thailand’s chaotic political transition this year: in a May general election, a plurality of the public supported the progressive Move Forward Party, which campaigned on reforming Section 112, but the party’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat was thwarted by the country’s conservative establishment from taking the top job. Instead, the second-place, populist party Pheu Thai, abandoned its previous alliance with Move Forward and partnered with royalist parties to form a new government led by Srettha Thavisin—though analysts believe public sentiment toward Section 112 will continue to define Thai electoral politics in the future.

After his visit to the Section 112 exhibition, the 42-year-old Vacharaesorn, who is a lawyer and lives in New York, wrote in a Facebook post: “I love and honor the monarchy. But I believe that ‘knowing’ is better than ‘not knowing.’ Each person has their own opinion that comes from their experience. If we don't listen to their opinions, it doesn't make their views and opinions disappear.”

The posture by the king’s son is an encouraging sign, says Thai political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the organizer of the exhibition and a prominent critic of the monarchy who has faced charges of violating Section 112 and now lives in Japan.

“Maybe he wants to use this opportunity to convey a message to the palace that this is the way that the Thai palace must go, for the sake of the monarchy’s own survival,” Pavin tells TIME.

Protesters hold placards at a demonstration against Thailand's lèse-majesté laws in Bangkok, Thailand
Protesters demonstrate against Section 112, Thailand's royal defamation law, in Bangkok on Jan. 26, 2023.Varuth Pongsapipatt—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Vacharaesorn’s appearance and comments come just a month after he and his brother, Chakriwat, made a surprise trip to Thailand—their first return in nearly 30 years, since then-Prince Vajiralongkorn announced his divorce from their mother in 1996. The August trip, during which Vacharaesorn was photographed riding a tuk-tuk, eating pad thai, and visiting historical sites, sparked speculations that he is being considered as a potential successor, which the 71-year-old Vajiralongkorn has not yet officially named.

The future of the Thai royal family was thrown into uncertainty in December when the king’s first daughter and eldest child Bajrakitiyabha Narendira Debyavati collapsed and went into a coma. She is believed to remain in hospital on life support, though there have been few official updates on her condition. Among the king’s six other children across his four marriages, there is no heir apparent. Vacharaesorn is the third child and second-eldest son behind his brother Juthavachara, who is unlikely to be considered for succession due to his marriage to a foreigner.

The palace did not comment on Vacharaesorn and his younger brother Chakriwat’s visit to Thailand, and it’s unclear if they met with their father. But observers note that such a return would have been very unlikely without approval from the monarchy.

“Without the green light from the palace, he wouldn’t have been able to return home. So the fact that he went home … he had to get some kind of permission,” says Pavin. “Perhaps they are looking into him as a kind of alternative to the succession.”

“This time I have to leave again, I hope in the future I and my brothers and family will be able to visit Thailand again,” Vacharaesorn said at a news conference before he left the country.

Whether Vacharaesorn’s social media post on the Section 112 exhibition could help or hurt his chances of ascending to the throne is not quite clear. The Thai palace has remained largely silent as debate over Section 112 has intensified, though in 2020 then-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said that Vajiralongkorn had urged authorities to refrain from charging people under the controversial law. 

“If [Vacharaesorn] wants to be someone important in Thailand in the future, he has to stand on his own legs,” says Pavin. “Anyone with sense, or intelligent enough, or progressive enough, they must know that the Thai monarchy cannot go on like this.”

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