Thailand: criminalising dissent
26 Jan 09

thai-kingThe crackdown on lèse majesté is intensifying as politics becomes polarised around the monarchy, says Sinfah Tunsarawuth

Action: sign the petition against Thailand’s lèse majesté prosecutions here

Years ago when this writer was a mass communication student at a Bangkok university, a senior editor of the English-language Bangkok Post was invited to speak about the editorial management of the daily.

The editor said the paper had once published a picture of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej with a caption saying the king was ‘on vacation’. The next day, he received a phone call. The caller told him the caption was inaccurate: the king was never on vacation.

The Bangkok Post editor was not under any threat of being charged with defaming the king, but the incident explicitly demonstrates how sensitive a subject the monarchy is among Thai people.

The constitution states: ‘The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.’ The king is, legally, above even the slightest criticism.

Defamation of the king or members of his family had not been a public issue for some time. Most Thais — as well as foreigners living in Thailand — know how to stay out of trouble. But since last year, the issue of lèse majesté has been taken up by the media like never before in modern Thai history.

In the past two weeks alone, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was convicted of lèse majesté and started his three-year jail sentence in Bangkok, Thai political scientist Giles Ji Ungpakorn was charged with the same offence, and oil-rig engineer Suwicha Thakhor was detained without bail on similar charges.

Thai authorities have intensified their crackdown on individuals defaming the monarchy as loyalty to the king now polarises the political inclination of two opposing, confrontational blocs.

‘There really has been a large number of websites containing materials that could be seen as defaming the monarchy,’ Natthaphong Luangnaruedom, a regular blogger, told Index on Censorship. ‘But most of them use language that prevents them from being caught.’

Natthaphong was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘politics and the online world’ in Bangkok yesterday (25 January), where he publicly declared he is with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose supporters wear yellow shirts — a colour that is associated with the king. In Thailand, yellow is the colour of people born on Monday — the day of the week on which the king was born.

PAD supporters, seen as royalists, are also known to oppose former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics consider Thaksin, in exile since his government was toppled by a military coup in September 2006, an anti-royalist.

His supporters have formed the red-clad Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), which is currently moving against the Democrat Party-led government.

In addition to the three recent cases, many other Thais are either being charged with or prosecuted for defaming the monarchy.

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has said it has shut down more than 2,000 websites alleged to have contained lèse majesté material. And the minister has made the crackdown a policy priority.

The senate, on Friday 23 January, set up a committee tasked with addressing the issue, warning that over 10,000 websites could be the target of the campaign.

Lèse majesté is classified under ‘Offences Relating to the Security of the Kingdom’ in Thailand’s Penal Code. It has been part of the code and rarely subjected to change since its promulgation in 1957. Thai authorities treat lèse majesté as a matter of national security.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

The Democrat Party, whose coalition government was formed in December 2008 with support from the royalist army, has legislation pending in parliament that will raise prison sentences for lèse majesté to a maximum of 25 years. The amendment will also add a maximum fine of one million baht (about USD $28,500). Currently, lèse majesté carries no fine.

The prescribed penalty and the recent intensification of suppression by Thai authorities have made the Thai public nervous. Many companies are known to have created firewalls to block suspicious websites or messages that might sneak into their computer systems, getting them and their employees in trouble.

The way in which the Thai police arrest lèse majesté suspects also adds to the current state of panic. They are known to have raided suspects’ homes at night, seizing computers and other assets. Many suspects have been detained with no prospect of bail.

The latest Thai to be accused of lèse majesté, oil-rig engineer Suwicha Thakhor, was arrested on 14 January by police as he and his wife were shopping in his hometown in the northeastern Nakhon Phanom province. The police also raided his other home in Bangkok, which he was accused of using as a base for spreading material defaming the monarchy.

He was interrogated by police without a lawyer present as he was persuaded that his cooperation would lead to his release. However, he has been detained by police since his arrest.

Suwicha, who has three children, has now been sacked by his employer without any severance, a direct result of having been charged with a serious crime.

‘What I want to know is: “Did I kill someone?”’ he has said. ‘I have seen suspects who killed people or raped young children released on bail. Some prominent individuals who faced charges similar to mine were released on bail. But I have not been granted bail. What is the standard on this issue?’

In an interview, he told a local website: ‘All my email messages have been read. They have set up a task force with a most wanted list, whose members they are trying to link into a network. I never thought Thailand would turn into this.’