BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s parliamentary opposition accused the foreign minister on Tuesday of trying to undermine the country’s revered monarchy with “wretched and vile” comments about reform of the royal institution.
Chalerm Yoobamrung, chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party, said during a heated no-confidence debate that Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya had been disrespectful to the monarchy and should be punished — a rare accusation against the government.
Chalerm was referring to comments made by Kasit during a speech in April at Washington’s Johns Hopkins University, in which he said Thailand should consider how the monarchy could be reformed in the globalized world.
Lese-majeste, or insults to the royal institution, carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison in Thailand. The current Democrat Party-led government is popular among royalists and few allegations of disloyalty have been made against it.
“This rhetoric of yours means our institution needs to be reformed. It’s a very wretched and vile thought,” Chalerm told Kasit during Tuesday’s televised debate.
“How could you say you want to reform the monarchy? You are audacious.”
Allegations of lese-majeste have become common during a polarizing five-year political crisis in Thailand as rival groups accuse each other of insulting the revered institution, leading to police complaints and drawn-out investigations.
But bringing the subject up in parliament is very rare.
Thailand’s 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is regarded as almost divine by most of the country’s 67 million people. The issue of his succession is an extremely sensitive topic.
The King has been in hospital since September last year after suffering from fatigue and lung inflammation.
A former Thai ambassador to the United States, Kasit has also been criticized for his previous role as a speaker at protests staged by a royalist “yellow shirts” movement that helped to undermine two elected governments since 2006.
He was appointed foreign minister three weeks after the ruling People’s Power Party was disbanded for electoral fraud in a court verdict handed down during an eight-day blockade of Bangkok’s airports by the yellow shirts in December 2008.
Kasit defended his speech at the university and said his intention was to protect the monarchy because of a “distortion of information” about the Thai royal institution in other countries.
Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Ron Popeski