Thailand: criminalising dissent
26 Jan 2009

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.’

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  4. […] that the current Democrat-led government has pushed for increased censorship (here also), has cracked down, called for heavier penalties for lèse majesté and for an acceleration of the existing […]

  5. […] leave a comment » Thailand: criminalising dissent 26 มกราคม 2552 Index on Censorship […]

  6. gordon reid says:


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  8. I find it useful, essential really, to distinguish acts of lèse majesté from prosecutions under the laws criminalizing lèse majesté in Thailand.

    The laws criminalizing lèse majesté are a state of the art totalitarian mechanism for “disappearing people”. Once a charge of lèse majesté has been leveled no more can be written about it! To do so would be to repeat the alleged criminal act and so be punishable just as the original. Bail is not granted. The accused has been disappeared. By allegation.

    There is no publication of the actual charges, no account of a trial other than a report of the length of the sentence at its conclusion. This is the wondrous value of the lèse majesté laws in Thailand to the totalitarian “elite”, who take turns consuming the country. HM the King is there merely to serve as a point of reference for the criminal prosecution of their enemies du jour. An elderly Mae Chi (Buddhist Nun) was sentenced for lèse majesté a year or so ago. No explanation given at all.

    It is much the same process as bankrupting your enemies to disenfranchise them in Singapore where money is actually the king.

    The two most commonly heard opinions of HM King Bhumipol Adulyadej whenever a forum like this picks up :
    1. He’s a fabulously rich tyrant who pulls all the strings in Thailand, 2. He’s a very decent man, with his people’s interest at heart, who inherited a very tough row to how and who has straightened it out and made it fruitful over the past sixty-three years.

    I hold the second opinion, although we none of us have any way of knowing what goes on inside the King’s head. I see in HM a straightforward and frugal man who goes into the office on Saturday mornings as well as Monday through Friday. To me being King is just another job, albeit hereditary and well-paid, to be carried off well of less well, according to the character of the individual.

    I do agree with Dudeist who wrote in the Economist:

    ‘ What is worrying about Harry’s case is that it is designed to send out a message to Western journalists working in Thailand – shut up or you’re next. It has little to do with protecting the king … and a lot more to do with political oppression. ‘

    and with globetroter, who wrote there as well, when he says:

    ‘ While the PAD have gotten away with murder … and never been arrested, the police are arresting red shirts for throwing rotten eggs, which is considered illegal in Thailand. ‘

    This last is hard evidence of the ruse of lèse majesté as cause for these prosecuions.

    HM the King’s sister died last year and at her funeral, solemn and full of pomp, HM King Bhumipol’s age and frailty, so apparent to us all on TV, reminded everyone of the mortality of HM the King, Bhumipol Adulyadej. The only King of Thaialand most of us have known for the whole of our lives.

    As I say, I do not know, but I think that like myself most Thais and most foreigners living in Thailand have looked at HM the King’s long reign since assuming the throne at the age of eighteen, following the murder of his brother, HM King Ananda, with respect; and give the man credit for carrying on over all these years in a very decent fashion. We all admire and respect him perhaps to varying degrees.

    But not so the People Against Democracy, or PAD as they styled themselves. The mob was camped out in the Ratchadamnoern disrupting life for ordinary Thais at the time of the funeral, and their reply to a request from the palace for a let-up in their “protest”, to allow HM the King to attend was reminiscent of the New York Daily News’ 1975 headline: “DROP DEAD!”.

    It was clear to me that a milestone was passed with that arrogant act at that quiet, contemplative time. The sheep’s clothing fell from the lean wolve’s bodies. The PAD care not one whit for HM the King Bhumipol Adulyadej. They value him as their tool, which allows them to disappear others for “thought crimes” while pointing at him. For without HM King Bhumipol, or some King of Thailand To Be Named Later they would lose their most magical, most potent tool of oppression.

    But globetroter further asserted :

    ‘ The king always claims he is against these laws. But he could do away with them at the flick of his pen. ‘

    HM said on the occasion of his birthday address in 2005 : ‘Actually I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticised, it means that the King is not human.’

    I don’t believe that the HM the King has any such power at all. I believe he is the virtual prisoner of his “protectors” in the palace. Remember that the most vivid memory in the head of the eighteen year old Bhumipol Adulyadej as he ascended the throne was the fresh murder of his brother, HM King Ananda. HM King Bhumipol continued in that same birthday address :

    ‘ Before I was the King, I regretted many times but after I became the King, the Thai King, which foreigners call the King, I understand that I hardly do wrong because I am careful. If I am not careful, I would have died. Must be careful, if not then I would die. This is natural for politics or for being in the public eye. The public eye can kill. If we are not careful, we die. That is why I said the King can do no wrong because it must be “do no wrong’’ because to do wrong is to die.’

    HM King Bhumipol Adulyadej as Constitional monarch can do no more. His “protectors” willfully mock his express wishes in their pursuit of their enemies using HM the King as their club, as their weapon. They do not accord him the respect he deserves as a human being. Is that not itself an act of lèse majesté, whether it be a crime or not, as HM the King wishes it were not?

    Finally globetroter rightly alludes to the “clever” divide and conquer strategy : ‘ The lèse majesté laws are also continuously exploited to do away with legitimate political opposition to those that hold the power in Thailand. It is similar to NAZI Germany where a neighbor coveting his neighbor’s wife or goods or means could make charges and get rid of him. ‘

    There is an up and coming act of Thai Minister of Justice (sic) Pirapan Salirathavibhag that would do just that :

    ‘ As an opposition MP last year he [Pirapan Salirathavibha] drafted two bills to that effect, and as minister will push for parliamentary approval.

    ‘ One raises the maximum jail term for lese-majeste to 25 years, while the other will remove the need for a police investigation and allow lese-majeste complaints to be filed by members of the public directly with the courts.

    ‘ Critics say the law is open to abuse since a complaint can be filed by anybody against anybody, no matter how minor the alleged disrespect to the royal family. ‘

    The “crime” will also be punishable by a fine of up to one million baht… proibably at the suggestion of cronies in Singapore.

    You may follow further developments at ‘Political Prisoners in Thailand’ and at ‘Political Writings on Thailand’.

  9. […] has recently been on a binge of jailing people for lese majeste, the crime of insulting the king. Index on Censorship has a fantastic roundup of the history and issues. The constitution states: ‘The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall […]

  10. […] Index on Censorship has posted an insightful commentary on the current crisis of censorship and legitimacy. See Sinfah Tunsarawuth, 26 January 2009, “Thailand: Criminalising Dissent” […]

  11. […] Thailand: Criminalising Dissent The crackdown on lèse majesté is intensifying as politics becomes polarised around the monarchy […]