THAILAND’S LESE MAJESTE LAWS
In Thailand, it is regarded as a despicable, shameful act to say anything bad about the king. Only the most delicate portrayal of the King and his family is acceptable — even though the monarch said publicly in 2005 he was not above criticism. In Thailand respect for the Royal Family goes beyond mere custom: it is safeguarded by law. It is not only socially unacceptable to disparage members of the Royal Family or their likenesses; it is punishable under lese majeste law.
Disrespecting the monarchy in Thailand is a criminal offense. Under Thailand’s lese majeste laws, any person who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir to the throne or the Regent” faces three to 15 years in jail. Those convicted of multiple charges can receive longer sentences. For example, if a person is charged on six different counts of insulting the monarchy, each with a maximum sentence of 15 years, that person can be sentenced to 90 years in prison.
Thailand's lese majeste laws mandate a jail term of up to 15 years. They are considered the harshest in the world and are criticized as an infringement of free speech. Thai lese majeste law has been strengthened over the years by successive military rulers. The prison term was raised to 15 years after 1976 student protests at Thammasat University were crushed. Critics say the law stifles reasonable debate on the monarchy. Because the penalties are so harsh mainstream media has largely practiced self-censorship when it comes to royal issues.
Anyone can make an accusation of insulting the monarchy and the police are duty-bound to investigate. Lese majeste complaints are typically filed at local stations and passed to Metropolitan Police headquarters. "Under the law local area police cannot investigate the lese majeste case. We have to refer it to the Metropolitan Police who will set up a committee to investigate," local police superintendent Colonel Somprasong Yenthaum told AFP.
Discussion of the monarchy’s role in Thailand has been taboo for a long time but in recent years it has become a more relevant topic as King Bhumibol has become more frail and his health has become a matter of news. There are no laws against gossiping about the monarchy in private but doing so in public violates the lese majeste laws. A friend of mine had an old boy friend with an obnoxious brother with a Thai girlfriend who used to tease the girlfriend by pointing his feet at the king. He was never charges with any crime even though the intent of the lese majeste laws was to crack down on such behavior.
In the late 2000s there was a flurry of lese majesty charges and accusations. “Thais have become trigger-happy,” David Streckfuss, an American expert on Thai royalty, told the Times of London. “What constitutes normal debate in other constitutional monarchies is increasingly difficult in Thailand.” Sentencing on lese majesty laws has drawn international criticism not only of the laws but of a monarchy that tolerates them.
Nitirat is a group of legal scholars that launched a petition drive to amend the lese majeste law and national security offenses. When he was in power in 2008 to 2011 Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was looking into ways to amend both the law and the way it is implemented.
Lese Majeste Laws in Other Countries
Lese majeste laws date to ancient Rome.Under Spanish law, insulting the royal family is punishable by two years in prison. In July 2007, a court ordered the satirical magazine "El Jueves" off the shelves after it published a cartoon of the heir to the throne having sex. Critics said the ruling violated free speech. [Sources: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, Aug 13, 2007, U.S. State Department, The Guardian, Boston Globe, American Heritage Dictionary, Reuters]
In Britain, the 1848 Treason Felony Act imposes a life jail term for anyone urging the abolishment of the monarchy in print. The law remains on the books after a failed court challenge by the Guardian newspaper in 2003, but the age of deference toward British royalty is long past. The law has not stopped newspapers from airing republican views or blocked Web sites such as www.abolishthemonarchy.co.uk. [Ibid]
And after a string of scandals and divorces, the royals are often mocked by tabloids and satirists, including a new stage play that portrays the ruling Windsor family as sex-mad egomaniacs. Nevertheless, there are times when the media has gone too far. In July 2007, the BBC apologised to Queen Elizabeth for implying in a documentary trailer that she had stormed out of a photo-shoot with U.S. celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. [Ibid]
Oil-rich Brunei, one of the last absolute monarchies, has strict laws protecting Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his family The Sedition Act carries a maximum 3-year jail term for anyone who violates "the rights, status position, discretion, powers, privileges, sovereignty, or prerogatives of the sultan, his spouse, successors, or other members of the royal family". Last year, three men were sentenced to one year in prison for sending mobile phone video clips deemed insulting to the royal family. [Ibid]
In Japan, lese majeste was repealed after the Second World War by General Douglas MacArthur, who led the post-war occupation. He said the Emperor "is entitled to no more and no less legal protection than that accorded to all other citizens of Japan". Tabloids engage in gossip about the imperial family's stressful and tightly-controlled lives, but too much intrusion can touch a nerve. In February 2007, a book by an Australian journalist about the plight of Crown Princess Masako was denounced by the government as an insult the royal family. Plans for a Japanese edition of "Princess Masako - Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne" were scrapped, but recent reports say a new publisher has agreed to print the book in Japan. [Ibid]
Thailand’s Lese Majeste Laws and Politics
The Thai lese majeste laws are sometimes used as a political tool and can be used to clamp down on freedom of the press and freedom of expression and freedom of press without even without being enforced. The World Press Freedom Committee has said that the threat of a fine or jail time can “scare the hell out of a newspaper.”
In the early 1980s, Suak Sivaraksa, a leading Thai intellectual, was arrested on lese majeste charges after he flippantly referred to the King as the “skipper” (an allusion to the king’s fondness for sailing). He was arrested again in 1991 when called he royal family an “ordinary family.” Although he received a royal pardon the first time he was forced to flee the country the second time to avoid prosecution. Later he returned after being given a suspended sentence.
Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote: “Too often, critics say, the law has been abused because it allows nearly anyone to level an accusation of disloyalty, compelling police, prosecutors and the courts to act. "Generally, it's a risk-free action. Anyone can make the charge. You just go to the police," American academic and lese majeste expert David Streckfuss said. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, August 13, 2007]
Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “During the reign of Rama V (1868-1910), a young Thai journalist named Thien Wannapho (1842-1915), popularly known as Thienwan, wrote numerous articles that challenged the highest wielders of power in all aspects without fear or favour. He repeatedly called for the abolition of slavery, ending all forms of gambling, establishing a parliamentary democracy, as well as fighting against corruption and injustice in all forms. When he wrote a petition to King Chulalongkorn on behalf of a Thai citizen he was accused of lese majeste and defamation against Cabinet members. As a result, he was caned 50 times before being made to face a 17-year jail term at the age of 40. During the first two years of his imprisonment, he was tortured inhumanely with wooden bars around his neck, hands, and feet day and night. His body was crippled but not his spirit. No newspaper would publish his articles for fear of prosecution, however he would give his writings to those who dared to publish them at their own peril, mostly in the form of funeral memorial books or free booklets. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, March 5, 2007]
Thai Political Activists Arrested on Lese Majeste Laws
In August 2009, 46-year-old Thai activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was given an 18-year prison sentence on charges on insulting the monarchy during speeches at a political rally. A former journalist, he was given six years each for three different insulting remarks he made during speeches, Daranee, nicknamed “Da Torpedo” for his aggressive speaking style, had already been iin jail, detained without bail, 13 months when the sentence was given. Wearing an orange prison uniform he smiled at the cameras and flashed a victory sign when he was escorted out of the courtroom after his sentencing.
In 2006, a complaint was filed against the chairman of the national election commission on grounds that he defended the April 2006 vote after the king suggested it be nullified as undemocratic. Police have filed similar charges against protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul for remarks he made at a March demonstration. Sondhi has said he was misquoted. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva defended the laws saying the monarchy must be protected because it has “immense benefits to the country as a stabilizing force.”
In November 2011, Ampon Tangnoppakul, known as Uncle SMS, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating the lese majesty law. In February 2012, Thai political activist Surachai Danwattananusorn was sentenced to 7½ years in prison for insulting the monarchy during several speeches he gave to supporters of his “Red Siam” group in 2008 and 2010. Red Siam is an extremist offshoot of the Red Shirts. Surachai’s lawyer said, “This case is politically motivated.”
In March 2013, Associated Press reported: “A Thai man was sentenced to three years and four months in prison Thursday for selling video CDs of an Australian TV news segment deemed offensive to Thailand's royal family. The court convicted 37-year-old Akachai Hongkangwan under lese majeste laws. The VCDs contained a segment on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s Foreign Correspondent series in 2010 that questioned the future of Thailand's monarchy. The segment included footage from a private video of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn with his then wife-to-be. The court also fined him for 66,666 baht ($2,271) for violating copyright law. Akachai was selling the VCDs during the anti-government demonstration in Bangkok in 2010. He was arrested in March 2011 and was released on bail. The court reduced the original sentence of five years to three years and four months, citing that Akachai had provided useful accounts during the trials. [Source: Associated Press, March 28, 2013]
Thailand’s Lese Majeste Laws, Thaksin and Red Shirts
Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote: “At the height of a political crisis in 2006, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his enemies, who accused him of corruption and abuses of power, hurled lese majeste charges at each other. His alleged disrespect for the King was cited as one reason for the September coup, which some analysts say was as much about a royalist military and corporate elite removing a nouveau riche businessman who had encroached on their turf. All lese majeste charges were dropped after he was gone. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, August 13, 2007]
Thaksin's critics had charged he had sought to usurp royal power, while his supporters believed that the old power-holders, circles around the palace in alliance with the military and others, sought to suppress democracy to preserve their own privilege. As unprecedented debate raged — muted publicly by a harsh law banning criticism of the monarchy — the king's frail health caused him to distance himself from public affairs. Overzealous attempts to defend the monarchy's reputation by suppressing criticism only inspired new questions over its place. [Ibid]
“Sulak Sivaraksa, a social critic who faced lese majeste charges in the early 1990s and under Thaksin, said abuse of the law undermines the monarchy, which is invoked frequently in politics despite the King's officially non-political status. "If you are really respecting the King, the best present...would be to withdraw this law," he said. But others say tinkering is unlikely, especially given that the generals who ousted Thaksin have gone out of their way to wrap themselves and their actions in the royal flag. During the coup, soldiers tied yellow ribbons to their rifles. Billboards urging a "Yes" vote in an August 19 referendum on a new constitution make an explicit link: "Love the King. Care about the King. Vote in a referendum. Accept the 2007 draft charter". [Ibid]
In January 2009, Gile Ji Ungpakorn, a prominent political commentator and political scientist at Chulalongkorn University , was charged with insulting the king. Ji denied the charges and said they were politically motivated. Ji challenged the law. “This is a way of shutting up people and silencing opponents, especially opponents of the military dictatorship in 2006,” he said. But not only that he challenged the institution of the monarchy itself and suggested it should be replaced with a republican form of government in which all leaders are elected. He said he fled made these statements where he had fled because he didn’t think he would receive a fair trial in Thailand. A court issued a warrant for his arrest in March 2009.
In August 2012, Apilaporn Vechakij of AFP wrote: “Rights campaigners say the law has been politicised in recent years, with many of those charged linked to the Red Shirts, whose street protests in Bangkok in 2010 triggered the worst civil unrest in decades with about 90 dead. Many Red Shirts seek the return of Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon who was toppled by royalist generals in a coup in 2006. Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra leads a government elected last year, but lese majeste cases have continued under her and she has dismayed activists since becoming premier by ignoring calls for reform of the law. [Source: Apilaporn Vechakij, AFP, August 23, 2012]
Thai Magazine Editor Gets 10 Years in Politically-Tinged Lese Majaste Case
Former Thai magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was jailed for 10 years for insulting the royal family, a sentence that drew condemnation from international rights groups and the European Union. Amy Sawitta Lefevre of Reuters wrote: “Prueksakasemsuk was found guilty of publishing articles defaming King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2010 when he was editor of a magazine devoted to self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The articles criticized the role of a fictional character meant to represent the king, public prosecutors said in a July 2011 report. "The accused is a journalist who had a duty to check the facts in these articles before publishing them. He knew the content defamed the monarchy but allowed their publication anyway," a judge said in passing sentence. [Source: Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, January 23, 2013]
The magazine, whose English title is Voice of Taksin, a play on words meaning "Voice of the Oppressed", was shut down shortly before Somyot's arrest, said Thida Thawornseth, a leader of the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement. The European Union Delegation to Thailand said the verdict and sentence undermined the right to freedom of expression. "At the same time, it affects Thailand's image as a free and democratic society," it said in a statement. New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling was "more about Somyot's strong support for amending the lese-majeste law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy".
Rights groups say the lese-majeste law is used by Thailand's powerful elite to silence political opponents, including supporters of pro-Thaksin groups. "The lese-majeste law works against the long-term interests of the Thai monarchy," said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent scholar and lese-majeste expert. "To a society that is becoming ever more politically conscious, the holding and trying of defendants seems arbitrary, petty and a clear violation of human rights."
Somyot, who was jailed for an additional year on an unrelated defamation conviction, was arrested on the lese-majeste charge while Oxford-educated, pro-establishment Abhisit Vejjajiva was prime minister.Current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, promised to amend the law during her 2011 election campaign but has rowed back on that since coming to office, causing divisions among her supporters.
Thai Academic Charged Under Thailand’s Lese Majeste Laws
In the summer of 2007, Boonsong Chaisingkananont, a professor of philosophy at Silpakorn University, was investigated on lèse majesté charges for putting the following question in an exam: “Is the monarchy necessary in Thai society? How should it adapt to a democratic system? Discuss.” Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote: “Question 8 on Professor Boonsong Chaisingkananont's examination may seem a harmless academic exercise. But in Thailand, one of the few countries where laws protecting royalty are strictly enforced, it is a taboo question which could land the 46-year-old philosophy lecturer in jail. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, August 13, 2007]
Acting on a complaint from a fellow professor at Silpakorn University, police are investigating whether Boonsong insulted King Bhumibol Adulyadej by asking his first-year students to debate the role of the monarchy in exams in 2005 and 2006. Professor Winai Poonampol said he went to police because Boonsong's teachings posed "a threat to society". "It should not be biased, teaching only one side like a doctrine," he said. The accusation is a serious one. Boonsong has not been charged, but police have interviewed students and other faculty members at the leafy campus in Nakhon Pathom on the outskirts of Bangkok. "We are collecting information," Police Colonel Passakorn Klanwan said. "We are looking at the intent of his teachings".
Insisting he did nothing wrong, Boonsong has refused to hand over the marked exam papers, saying it would violate his students' rights and could expose them to allegations of lese majeste. "This is like McCarthyism," the bespectacled professor with shoulder-length hair told Reuters, referring to the 1950s anti-communist witchhunts in the United States. "I think it's important for students to be able to analyse and criticise. They must have a deep understanding of any important institution in Thai society and this includes the monarchy," he said.
More than 500 academics and activists have signed a petition (www.petitiononline.com/4bs2007/petition.html) denouncing the case as a grave threat to academic freedom. "It bodes ill for Thailand at a bad time for the country, when there are strenuous efforts to roll back all sorts of modern thinking and institutions in favour of those that serve only the interests of its elite," said Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The case has unnerved university officials who said they warned Boonsong he was playing with fire. "In this country, this kind of thing is against the law," said acting Arts Faculty dean Maneepin Phronsuthirak. "If he wants to ask these questions he should go and live in England or Australia or somewhere where it is not against the law. "What happens to my students if they ask the same questions to people outside the class?"
An informal survey of students suggests the campus is far from becoming a hotbed of republicanism. "It's only an academic matter, not lese majeste," third-year student Pongpat Manachaisak said. Sutasinee Akkapanyapak also disagreed with the case. "Yes, we can criticise. The King said we can criticise but we have to rely on logic. But most people don't dare to because there is barrier to talk about such things," she said. In the current climate, perhaps it's no surprise Boonsong has yet to decide if question 8 will appear on his exam this year. "I am not a royalist and I am not an anti-royalist. I am a free mind. I just want an open society," he said.
Thai Couple Charged for Not Standing for Royal Anthem in a Cinema
On April 22, 2008, Chotisak Onsoong, an ardent republican who objects to the degree that monarchy is revered, and Chutima Penpak, a devote Muslim who object to the idolization of human beings, were charged with breaking lèse majesté laws for not standing when the Thai national anthem was played at a cinema. They launched a campaign called ‘Not Standing is No Crime, Different thinking is No Crime’. A cyber petition has been launched at www.petitiononline.com to collect signatures to support their cause. Some Thai signed the petition to support Chotisak and his friend. Some, however, cursed them and told them to leave the country. [Source: Prachatai, April 22, 23, 2008]
Chotisak said he did not have any intent to insult the monarchy, and his ‘sitting still’ did not constitute an offense against the monarchy. He cited Articles 4 and 28 of the constitution that guarantee the rights and freedoms of Thai people to choose to do or not to do anything in accordance with their beliefs and faiths. And he called for the lèse majesté law, or Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, to be revoked, as it has been used to restrict people’s rights and freedoms and goes against the constitution. “Many people have exploited the lèse majesté law to destroy their enemies, without taking any responsibility. And the interpretation of the law has become ever broader to the point that anything can constitute a lèse majesté offence”, said Chotisak. [Ibid]
Describing what happened Chotisak told Prachatai: “On September 20, last year, we went shopping and saw a movie [in Central World shopping complex]. We didn’t stand up for the Royal Anthem [which precedes every movie in Thai cinemas], as I had usually not stood up. A man whose seat was two seats away from us turned to us, saying ‘Stand up’ [in English], as he probably understood us to be foreigners, but we sat still. He waited until the anthem finished, and then he went to call the cinema staff to deal with us, while the movie was starting. However, the staff didn’t do anything, but, instead, tried to calm him down. We later knew his name was Navamintr. [Ibid]
“When he saw that the staff were doing nothing, he stood up and began to scold us. The things he said included ‘Get out’, and ‘You are Thai. Why don’t you stand up? Even foreigners do.’ I just said that I came to see the movie, and I felt fine; if he didn’t, he could just leave. He was angry, and hurled things at us, those movie handbills and stuff in his hands. He even snatched a popcorn container and water bottle from my friend’s hands to throw at us. When he paused to catch some breath during his rant, the audience clapped for him, and he then resumed. Finally, we could not stand it any longer, so we walked out, called 191, and waited for the police in front of the cinema. When he came out after the movie finished, he was apparently taken aback, not expecting that we would take it seriously. The police took us all to the police station. We didn’t say anything between us. The police told me and my friend that if we pressed charges against Navamintr, he would press lèse majesté charges against us in return. I discussed this with my friend, and we thought even if we were supposed to have broken the law, that man had no right to abuse us, and he could have lodged a complaint with the police in the first place. And our rights are also upheld by the law, so we pressed charges against him for physical abuse, damage to property, defamation, and coercion.” [Ibid]
On his reasons for not standing up, Chotisak said: “If the law states that this is against the law, I will abide by the law, as the law has the real power over us. But I understand that it is not against the law, so I chose not to stand. According to some people, to stand up for the Royal Anthem may not be required by law, but it’s a tradition. Is this really a tradition? I remember reading an article, probably published on a website, that says previously the Royal Anthem used to be played after the movies finished, and no one bothered to stand, but just rushed out to go home. That was back in the reign of King Rama V, when the anthem was first introduced in theatres. The idea the anthem should be played before movies is even newer. So at what point are things considered tradition? Talking about traditions vs. rights, one finds that there are many traditions which people do not follow, and no one seems to bother. If violators of tradition are to be punished, many more jails need to be built. Traditions are man-made, not unlike laws. If they’re not appropriate, not right, anachronistic, or against people’s well being, they can be revoked. There were similar cases. For example, in 1979, there was a supreme court verdict giving a jail sentence to a man for not standing up and saying, ‘What song is this? Don’t understand a word.’ This is unlike my case where, even though I didn’t stand, I respected the rights of those who wanted to stand. I gave them my respect for their ritual observance by choosing to sit still.” [Ibid]
Thailand’s Lese Majeste Laws, the Foreign Media and the Internet
In April 2007, one of the most popular chat lines in Thailand— www.pantip.com — was ordered to shut its political forum because some postings were deemed insulting to the monarchy. Many thought the decision was made because there were many postings critical of the government and the military. In January 2009, a Thai man Suwicha Thakhor was arrtested after allegedly posting messages insulting to the king on the Internet.
In January 2009, Thailand blocked 2,300 Web pages deemed insulting to monarchy and said it planed to block another 400 according to Communications Minister Ranongrak Suwanchawee. Reuters reported: “Ranongrak, a former nurse who joined the cabinet last month, said waging a cyber war against anti-monarchy activists was her top priority, though critics of censorship have said the country needs to liberalise its telecommunications industry urgently to compete with the rest of the world. She said she was seeking help from the ministries of interior, defence and justice to take "drastic action" against those who distributed insulting words and photos of the royal family. As of July 2009, 4,800 web pages had been blocked under lese majeste laws. [Source: Reuters, January 6, 2009]
"We will have to raise awareness on our youths to right wrongs," the ministry's web site, www.mict.go.th, quoted Ranongrak as saying. The ministry also planned to spend 45 million baht ($1.4 million) on equipment for its round-the-clock war room to fight messages defaming the royal family members, Suea Loruthai, a senior bureaucrat at the ministry, was quoted on the web site as saying.
In March 2008,Jakrapob Penkair, a Thai minister who led protests against the September 2006 coup, was accused of insulting the monarchy based on remarks he made during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Jakapoh, a close ally of former Prime Minister Thaksin, was charged by police that saw a video and transcript from the event. It was not revealed exactly what he said.
In July 2009, police in Thailand said they were investigating an alleged insult to the monarchy by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. AFP reported: “A woman had filed a complaint against the entire 13-member board of the club over the distribution of a DVD that included a controversial speech made at the club in 2007, police and the board said."We learnt this morning through a news report that a lese majeste complaint was filed against the FCCT's board last night," said Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) president Marwaan Macan-Markar. "We understand that the police have an obligation to conduct an inquiry. The FCCT will cooperate with such an inquiry." [Source: AFP, July 2, 2009]
The complaint — the first to be made against the club in its five-decade history — was instigated by a 57-year-old woman, a known critic of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, local media reported. The DVD included a controversial speech by pro-Thaksin politician Jakrapob Penkair in 2007 about the coup against Thaksin the year before, for which Jakrapob was accused of lese majeste and quit his cabinet post in May 2008. The club's board includes the BBC's Bangkok correspondent Jonathan Head, who is also under investigation under lese majeste laws, partly because he moderated at Jakrapob's speech.
Thais Arrested for Insulting the Monarchy Using Computer Crime Laws
Websites accused of defaming the royal family are frequently shut down. "Thailand's 2007 Computer Crimes Act effectively muzzles those who want to express an honest opinion and 75 percent of websites shut down since it came into force have been because of so-called anti-monarchy content," said Sawatree Suksri, a criminal law lecturer at Thammasart University in Bangkok. Convictions under the law carry a maximum jail term of 15 years.
Thailand's 2007 Computer Crime Act is a controversial and wide-ranging law passed by a military-installed legislature following the 2006 coup. The laws address hacking and other online offenses but also bar the circulation of material detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy, or that causes public panic. Authorities say the law is meant to close legal loopholes and tackle crimes in cyberspace. Critics label it a "witch hunt law" against political dissidents with provisions so vague they could be used against any web surfer.
In April 2009, Thai citizen Suwicha Thakhor, a former oil worker, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of insulting the king, by posting edited photos of the king on the Internet. The court did not say how the photos were changed or where they were posted but some had appeared on YouTube. A father of three, Suwicha was found guilty of lese majeste charges and the 2007 Computer Crime Act. He could have been sentenced to 20 years but the court decided to go easy on him because he confessed. Critics of the decision said he did nothing more than check out the some “offensive” materials in one site and share with others as Internet users do all the time.
In September 2011, a 49-year-old Thai computer programer named Surapak Puchaisaeng was arrested on charges of insulting the monarchy for creating a Facebook page with a defamatory posting about the king. His lawyer said he denied the charges. In June 2012, a website designer named Chiranuch Premchaiporn was given a relatively light punishment, a suspended jail sentence, on computer crimes charges. The court ruled that some articles on the Prachatai news website, where Chiranuch worked as an editor, were offensive to the monarchy and after they were deemed offensive were not removed quickly enough (at least one remained posted for 20 days).
In November 2009, two Thai men with financial backgrounds—Katha Pajariyapong and Theeranan Vipuchanin—were charged with spreading false rumors about the health of the king, which sent the stock market plunging. They were charged under the Computer Crime Act for damaging national security by posting false information on the Internet. Later a third person, Somchet Ittiworakul, was arrested on the same charges.
Ambika Ahuja of Reuters wrote: “When Tassaporn Ratawongsa, a 42-year-old radiologist arrived for work at a private Bangkok hospital recently, she expected to see her patients. Instead, she was greeted by police who arrested her, searched her apartment and copied her laptop's contents. Her alleged crime: "Inputting into a computer system false information that undermines national security and causes public panic." She was the fourth person accused of spreading rumors about the health of Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, that sent stock prices tumbling in mid-October. [Source: Ambika Ahuja, Reuters, December 18, 2009]
In November 2011, a 61-year-old man was given a 20-year jail sentence for sending four text messages on his mobile phone, which the court considered as being defamatory to the monarchy. The court sentenced Amphon Tangnoppakul it refused to accept his claim that he did not know how to use the text-message function on his phone. Many felt the the should have been quickly dismissed not resulting a severe “shocked and awe” sentence. [Source: Thanong Khanthong, November 25, 2011]
“War Room” Used to Block Sites That Insult the Monarchy
Between 2007 and 2009, Thai authorities have blocked almost 20,000 Web pages deemed insulting to the monarch, Aree Jiworarak, head of Thailand's information technology supervision office, told Reuters. His "war room," staffed around the clock by a team of bilingual civil servants and young professionals, tackles "systematic attempts" to undermine the throne, Aree said. [Source: Ambika Ahuja, Reuters, December 18, 2009]
Ambika Ahuja of Reuters wrote: “Court approval is needed to shut most websites. But for those offensive to the monarchy, his office approaches Internet Service Providers to block access before getting an official court order. About 100 such pages are found a day, he said. "It is not just about national security. It's about the hurt feelings among Thai people. Service providers cooperate because they love the country, too," Aree said.
However, critics say providers have another reason to work with authorities: the law could subject them to the same punishment unless they cooperate. While authorities say the law is necessary to establish a safe cyber-environment, critics say it does just the opposite. "It is creating fear that 'Big Brother' is watching," said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who was arrested after a reader posted a comment allegedly critical of the monarchy on the Prachatai Webboard she facilitates. Police said she failed to delete it promptly. "We still don't know how authorities get access to IP addresses of these people arrested because they did not ask webmasters," she said.
Sawatree Suksri, a lecturer at the law faculty at Thammasat University, said the law is ambiguous on several points, especially the use of terms "national security" and "public panic" which are subject to interpretation. Other analysts say the clampdown is reducing the space for public debate and hurting investors' confidence in Thailand's $260 billion economy, Southeast Asia's second biggest.
But policing the often-anonymous world of the Internet is far more difficult. Chiranuch, of Prachatai, said fear of prosecution may lead some surfers to consider disguising their identities or altering their IP address when visiting political webboards. Some rights groups said the use of the computer law may have gained prominence recently because authorities may be less inclined to use its harsh lese majeste laws on web surfers. The computer law may be used "for the prosecution of any type of thought crime on the disingenuous pretext that the crime is one of technology rather than one of expression or of ideas," said private watchdog the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Thai 'Cyber Scouts' That Patrol the Web for Royal Insults
Daniel Rook of AFP wrote: “Wearing his special "cyber scout" polo shirt with pride, Thattharit Sukcharoen scans the Internet pages on his computer in search of remarks deemed offensive to Thailand's revered monarchy. He is one of several dozen volunteers recruited by the Thai justice ministry to patrol cyberspace in search of anybody violating the kingdom's strict lese majeste rules. "My inspiration to be a cyber scout is the king. There are many ways to protect the institute, and this is one of them," Thattharit, a 39-year-old administrative worker at a school in Bangkok, told AFP. "Sometimes there are just fun conversations among teenagers and they think it's not important, but for those who love the royal institute, some comments that I see are not appropriate. I must report them to the authorities." [Source: Daniel Rook, AFP, May 10, 2011]
A boom in online discussion on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter is fueling political debate and challenging Thailand's long-standing taboo against openly discussing the royal family. According to a recent study by Freedom House, a US-based group campaigning for democracy and human rights, this shift "has provoked greater efforts by the government to control the free flow of information and commentary online. "Ironically, the large-scale blocking of websites critical of the royal family has further deepened the politicisation of the monarchy in the eyes of many Thais, while the increased content restrictions and legal harassment have contributed to greater self-censorship in online discussions," it added.
In recent years the Thai government has removed tens of thousands of web pages from the Internet for allegedly insulting the monarchy, and the cyber scout initiative is the latest attempt to monitor online debate. "I believe this project has a political motivation because this government sees the Internet as a threat. That's why it is trying to control it," said Supinya Klangnarong, a web freedom activist with the Thai Netizen Network. "The authorities shut down websites and arrested people who posted messages that threatened state security or the monarchy but they couldn't block them all and it also affected Thailand's human rights image," she said. "So they had to find a new way of controlling information by coming up with this project."
According to the project's website www.justice-cyberscout.org, volunteers "will have a duty to monitor information and actions dangerous to the country's security and will protect, defend and hold the royal institute in esteem." Students in particular are invited to sign up. Thattharit attended one day of training to become a cyber scout. "I learned about the history of the king, his majesty, and how divine he is ... and also how to use a computer, the Internet and Facebook," he said.
The project is in its infancy and so far Thattharit has not reported anybody to the authorities. He explained that if he finds comments deemed offensive to the king he plans to contact the person who posted them to first to warn them and give them a chance to change their views, before informing officials. "Not many people know about the project. They may think they're talking to a friend because I don't tell them I'm a cyber scout," he said. "I feel I am doing an important job. I can give back to the country."
Thailand Blocks YouTube for Insulting the Monarchy
In April 2007, the Thai government blocked YouTube and threatened to sue Google, YouTube’s owner, for showing video clips mocking the King. One depicts soles of shoes pointed ta the king—a major taboo in Thailand—while the Thai national anthem is played. Display the insulting images set off a debate on freedom of speech and expression on the Internet. The suit was dropped when Google agree to remove the insulting clips. The block was maintained even after the insulting video was removed by the user because by that time new videos mocking King Bhumibol appeared. One used bad language to denounce the king.
AP reported: “The Thai government retained a ban on the popular YouTube video website despite the removal of a short film deemed insulting to the country's beloved monarch. Even though the offending video was withdrawn, the site still featured at least one still frame from the contentious 44-second clip, said Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, the minister of information and technology. "That's not enough. We want the picture removed too before we unblock it," said Sitthichai, who added that Thai authorities have contacted YouTube to request it remove all traces of the video. [Source: AP, April 6, 2007]
Sitthichai had said Thai authorities blocked YouTube after its owner, Google Inc., turned down his request to remove the clip. The video, which showed graffitti-like elements crudely painted over a photograph slideshow of 79-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has "been removed by the user," said a notice posted Thursday on the page where it used to be. One part of the removed clip juxtaposed pictures of feet over the king's image—a major cultural taboo for Thais since feet are considered extremely dirty and offensive. The soundtrack was the Thai national anthem. [Ibid]
When Sitthichai approached Google to remove the video, the company told him the site contained material which attacked U.S. President George W. Bush far more harshly than the Thai king had been mocked. After the site was blocked and news of the ban circulated, the number of viewers of the video skyrocketed, with more than 40,000 visiting the site in about 24 hours, according to statistics posted on YouTube. Total views reached 66,553 before the video was pulled. Although the clip raised the issue about freedom of expression in Thailand, many viewers also reacted with outrage, hurling abuse at the clip's creator, self-described as 30-year-old "paddidda" based in the United States. [Ibid]
Around the same time, Nopporn Wong-Anan of Reuters wrote: “Two more clips mocking Thailand's revered monarch appeared on YouTube, a day after the withdrawal of another that had prompted the government to block the entire video-sharing Web site. One clip, 42 seconds long and titled "King of the Apes", was posted by "thaifreespeech", showing pictures of King Bhumibol... with a monkey's face. [Source: Nopporn Wong-Anan, Reuters, April 6, 2007]
"This VDO would give up to 15 years prison in Thailand because their leaders are evil and hate free speech," said a caption on one of the slides as the Thai national anthem played. The clip had been viewed 7,800 views already and attracted more than 200 comments.Like those on the withdrawn clip, which attracted a torrent of abuse, most of the comments on the new pictures urged YouTube to withdraw it from the site, www.youtube.com. "Please YouTube, DELETE IT. it's really hurt Thai people feeling. to 'thaifreespeech' i cursing you. you'll never be happy 'til the end of yr life," wrote "iamboeing". [Ibid]
After being shut down YouTube offered to “educate” the Thai government about how the site worked.Y ouTube spokeswoman Julie Supantold AFP: “Thai Information and Communications Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudoom “reported that his government is inflexible on the blocking of individual objectionable videos, and that the ministry's technical people have difficulty understanding how to block individual videos. While we will not take down videos that do not violate our policies, and will not assist in implementing censorship, we have offered to educate the Thai ministry about YouTube and how it works. It's up to the Thailand government to decide whether to block specific videos, but we would rather that than have them block the entire site. Communications ministry spokesman Vissanu Meeyoo responded by saying, "We insist that the clips considered offensive must be removed from the website. We will look into the technical possibilities of blocking individual web pages without blocking the entire site," Vissanu added. But the difficulty for censors in blocking individual videos became increasingly clear as new clips continued to be posted [Source: AFP, April 7, 2007]
Reforming the Lese Majeste Laws and the Futility of Shutting Down Anti-Monarchy Websites
Reuters reported: Current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, promised to amend the law during her 2011 election campaign but has rowed back on that since coming to office, causing divisions among her supporters. National unease over what follows his reign has contributed to tensions in the country since before Thaksin was toppled by the military in 2006, leaving the country divided broadly between royalists and nationalists on the one side and Thaksin's mostly lower-class supporters on the other. [Source: Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, January 23, 2013]
In June 2010, Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation, “Thailand must rethink online censorship for one simple reason: because it does not work. Shutting down the alleged anti-monarchy websites have intensified in the post May conflict leading to a tighter regime of online surveillance. From 2000-2003, only a dozen websites based abroad were identified and remained constant at that level. However, after the controversial Manusaya.com—the long-standing anti-monarchy website—was shut down in early 2005, it has helped spurn hundreds of mirror websites. Since then the cyber war against such tentacles continue unabated. The latest unofficial figure put the number at five figures and could increase exponentially in the coming months—reflecting, imagine or real, the changing sentiment prevailing in the cyberspace and heavy political manipulation associated with such efforts. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, June 20, 2010]
“The government is willing to spend additional hundreds million of baht to track down and shut down the websites and their URLs. But the end result would remain the same—more would appear. So far, online censorship has only negative repercussions on Thailand and its online users as it blocks public access to information and commercial transactions worldwide. It gives Thailand’s extremely bad publicity and reputation—something that the country can ill afford to have at this crucial time. The Thai authorities often said they have no option but to shut down these websites, which in their view, have committed "lese majeste," which literally means "injury to the Majesty." Such bureaucratic responses were mostly knee-jerk reaction. [Ibid]
“In November 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has set up an Advisory Committee on National Security Cases Involving the Monarchy. The committee comprises all permanent secretaries from all 19 ministries. The advisory committee will serve as focal point for all "lese majeste" cases that have been filed to prevent any attempt to politicize them as have been the cases in the past. The committee hopes to consider cases that could be given royal pardons. Its first recommendation after their second meetings in January was to drop the charge against Jonathan Heads, a former bureau chief of BBC in Bangkok, who faced three lese majeste charge filed by the police for comments he made at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in 2008... According to Prof Bowornsak Uwano, director of King Prokkhao Institute, the severity of the lese majeste offence has significantly been reduced. In most cases, if the king learns of the matter beforehand or if there is a petition for a royal pardon for this offence, he will either express his wish that the case not proceed, or grant a pardon. [Ibid]
Imprisoned in Thailand on Lese Majeste Charges
Apilaporn Vechakij of AFP wrote: “Locked up for breaking Thailand's most enduring taboo, the kingdom's "royal insult" prisoners say they face mistreatment from jail guards and are shunned even by common criminals. They are viewed by their supporters as prisoners of conscience, and in most countries would never have been locked up. But in Thailand they carry the stigma of flouting one of the nation's toughest and most controversial laws: defaming the monarchy. [Source: Apilaporn Vechakij, AFP, August 23, 2012]
"Some of the wardens took me to a different part of the jail and ordered other prisoners to beat me," said Thantawut Thaweewarodomkul, who is serving a 13-year term for posting online content deemed offensive to the royals. The incident, which happened soon after he was incarcerated three years ago, left him with two black eyes, the 40-year-old told an AFP reporter who visited him in the high-security Bangkok Remand Prison. The former administrator of the Nor Por Chor USA website, which has links to the "Red Shirt" protest movement loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, he was convicted under controversial lese majeste and computer crime laws. [Ibid]
He is one of nine lese majeste prisoners in the kingdom, according to the Office of the Human Rights Commission of Thailand, which says there were 241 cases under the law from 2007-2012, with an unknown proportion still under investigation. Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said lese majeste is seen as an "offence to society" and not just the four individuals it is designed to protect — the Thai king, queen, heir or regent. "Fellow prisoners, common criminals, look at them as somehow committing a crime that is different than what they have committed and somehow worse," he said. "It is not incredibly different than the way pedophiles are treated." The authorities bear responsibility for the mistreatment of royal insult prisoners, many of whom are held without bail and are tried in secret on national security grounds, he said. [Ibid]
In May 2012, Ah Kong, a 62-year-old grandfather, died in custody while serving a 20-year sentence for allegedly sending text messages to an aide of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that were deemed insulting to the royal family. An autopsy showed the inmate --- known in Thailand as "Uncle SMS" — had been suffering from liver cancer. But the death of one of the country's best known lese majeste prisoners generated a rare outcry among ordinary Thais. His wife Rosmalin Tangnoppakun said prison was "hard" on her husband, but neither the authorities nor his family knew he was suffering from the disease, and Ah Kong did not talk about conditions inside the jail. "He did not really tell me because he was afraid that I would be worried about him," she said. [Ibid]
Sorasit Chongjaroen, the superintendent of the Bangkok Remand Prison, denied there was mistreatment of inmates. "There is no such thing -- no beatings here," he told AFP. As for medical care at the prison, "it cannot be compared with hospitals outside anyway," Sorasit added. Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk, whose husband Somyot is facing charges over two articles published in his now-defunct Red Shirt magazines, said the law itself was futile. "You can physically put them in prison, but you cannot jail their thoughts," she told a press conference. Prisoners say, however, that their conditions have improved under the current administration. Daranee Charnchoengsilapakul, a hardcore Red Shirt serving a 15-year term for defaming the royals during political speeches, no longer has to guess who her visitors are in order to see them, according to one of her friends. But "not long ago she told me that she was still being beaten by some wardens", her brother Kittichai Charnchoengsilapakul told AFP. "They want to bully her." [Ibid]
Foreigners Who Broke the Lese Majeste Laws
In December 2011, a 55-year-old Thai-born American Joe Gordon was sentenced to 2½ years in prison on lese majesty charges for translating a banned biography about King Bhumibol— The King Never Smiles—from English into Thai and posting the content on the Internet. The sentences, which was read to Gordon whle he stood shackled in an orange prison uniform, was regarded as lenient. The judge said the punishment was intially set at five years but was reduced because Gordon pleaded guilty. In July 2012, Gordon was freed by royal pardon. No reason for the pardon but U.S. officials had urged Thai authorities to releasem Gordon, who was first detained in May 2011.
In December 2006, a 57-year-old drunk Swiss tourists named Oliver Rudolph Jufer was arrested in Chiang Mai for defacing portraits of King Bhumibol after he was caught by a surveillance camera spray painting black paint over posters of the king on the king’s 79th birthday. He faced a maximum senetce of 75 years because he was pleady guilt tof I’ve counts of lese majest, which carried a 15 year senetence each. He initially said he was innocents but later pleaded guilt The trial was closed to the public. Jufer was the first foreign convicted in at least a decade of insulting the monarchy.
According to court testimony Jefer had been drinking with a friend and drove his motorcycle home to get a can of black spray paint, wich he had bought to spray a dog house. He drove up to a munincipal office were a large poster of the king had been placed and climbed a ladder spray paint ove the image of the king. He then defaced four other osters near his home. Milliosn of such posyers had been hung around Thailand to hinor the king’s birthday. Jufer was given a 10-year sentence and spent a few weeks in jail before he was pardoned by King Bhumibol and deported from Thailand. A Chiang Mai police spokesman said: “The king in his kindness has granted hm a pardon and he has been transferred from the priosn and is in the process of being deported from the country.”
The Thai government quietly banned "The King Never Smiles", a 500-page biography portraying Bhumibol as "anti-democratic". In January 2009, the magazine The Economist was pulled off the shelved for the second time in two months because the magazine contained an article an Australian author jailed for three years for defaming the Thai monarchy
In 1994, a French businessman was arrested for insulting the monarchy during a Thai Airways flight from London with two members of the royal family on board. He was acquitted.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014