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Lese majeste

February 3, 2012

Foreign scholars, including Noam Chomsky, have urged the Thai government to revise the world’s toughest lese majeste law on the "Land of Smiles."

Accompanied by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, background left, and Queen Sirikit, background 2nd left, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pushed on a wheelchair as he leaves Siriraj hospital for a ceremony marking Coronation Day Wednesday, May 5, 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand. King Bhumibol, the world longest reigning monarch, was crowned on May 5, 1950. (AP Photo)
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is deeply revered by ThaisImage: AP

More than 200 international distinguished scholars, writers and activists including prominent American thinker Noam Chomsky and Peter Carey, a Southeast Asia expert at the Oxford University, have echoed calls urging Thailand’s prime minister to reform laws protecting the country’s monarchy but which are also used as a weapon to undermine political opposition.

Lese majeste laws legislate against offending the ruling sovereign or government. Under Article 112 of the Thai Constitution, insults to the monarchy are punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Before a coup in 2006 that toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra – incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s self-exiled brother - the Thai courts only saw around four lese majeste cases each year. However, the number of convictions has surged, with 478 cases in 2010, as polarization following the 2006 military coup increases.

"The law has been used by politicians, government and military officials to go after their enemies," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Deutsche Welle. "It’s not just being used to protect the monarchy but for political reasons. It creates a lot of fear among a lot of Thais."

Wide interpretation, harsh punishment

Seven law lecturers and professors from Bangkok’s traditionally liberal Thammasat University have formed a group called Nitirat, meaning "law for the people". The academics have launched a campaign for the amendment of the lese majeste law, proposing a relaxation of penalties and the establishment of a special unit to handle complaints concerning lese majeste cases.

An open letter signed by academics from 16 countries was sent to Yingluck Shinwatra this week. "Article 112 has become a powerful tool to silence political dissent, and in particular, any dissent interpreted as disloyalty to the institution of the monarchy … The harsh and disproportionate lengths of the prison sentences given out under Article 112 have devastated the individuals sentenced and their families," the letter said.

Abhinya Sawatvarakorn, nicknamed "Joss Stick", a 19-year-old student at Thammasat University, was accused of violating the lese majeste law two years ago with comments posted on Facebook. She is to be formally charged on February 11. A 62-year-old retired truck driver, meanwhile, was sentenced to 20 years in prison last November for sending text messages to the secretary of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which "indicated intent to harm and defamation against Her Majesty that would trigger hatred." These were charges he denied.

Wolfram Schaffar, professor of political science at the University of Vienna, is one of the signatories to the open letter. "We should come out in support of this campaign because it’s very politically sensitive," Schaffar told Deutsche Welle. "In every country you do find regulations to protect the representatives of the country like the president, the anthem or the national flag. But the extent of the Thai lese majeste law to protect the monarchy is unique. The interpretation of what the defamation is is very wide."

Censorship blocks academic road

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, is revered as a father of Thailand by his people. Neither the king nor members of the royal family have ever personally filed any charges under the lese majeste law. The King has even encouraged criticism: "I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know."

The founder of the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) group, C.J. Hinke, also signed the letter. He expressed concerns over the variety of censorship allowed by the law, which he said shielded the government from criticism. "Under the pretense of being loyal to the monarchy, we’re seeing an enormous wave of censorship," Hinke told Deutsche Welle. "The issue is not whether one beholds the idea of monarchy. It creates such an imbalance through censorship that people are no longer able to have fully informed opinions."

Hinke said he felt the law should not only be amended, but repealed: "If you have a government which operates under the rule of law, laws are written to be extremely precise. The lese majeste law as it stands is to insult, threaten or defame the monarch. But in fact, people are being put in jail for the most specious reasons."

"As an academic, what I notice is my students are not able to actually write theses and dissertations that can compete to the international standard because of the censorship," Hinke added.

Appeal to be ignored

However, some royalist groups and media commentators accuse the campaigners of attempting to overthrow the monarchy. Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha urged the activists who opposed Article 112 to "go and live in foreign countries" over their disrespect for the monarchy. Meanwhile, the People’s Alliance for Democracy has called for the arrest Nitirat members. Effigies of Nitirat members have been burned during protests and a death threat has been sent to the group.

The Thai foreign minister says there is no reason for the government to respond to the open letter because political parties in power have no intention of changing the law.

"I think if you get a letter from people like Noam Chomsky, it’s impolite not to answer the letter," said Hinke.

Ein Boot liegt in einer Bucht der thailaendischen Insel James Bond Island (Phang Nga) (Foto undatiert). Foto: Thailaendisches Fremdenverkehrsamt/ddp. Bildersatz zu Artikel: Öko-Tourismus in Thailand, Januar 2012, Michael Altenhenne
"Land of Smiles" has the world's harshest lese majetse lawImage: dapd
Anti-government protesters and supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra take up the street outside the home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's top adviser, Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they accuse of masterminding the Sept. 19, 2006 coup during a protest Wednesday, April 8, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected calls for his resignation as tens of thousands of protesters marched Wednesday in Bangkok, posing the biggest challenge to his government amid fears of violence. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
Protest calling on former Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down after the 2006 coupImage: AP
Yingluck Shinawatra, a member of Pheu Thai Party, center, greets fellow party members on her arrival at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday, May 16, 2011. Thailand's main opposition party has nominated the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to be its candidate for the same post in the upcoming general election. If elected, she could become the country's first female prime minister. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Letter calling for lese majeste law reform sent to PM Yingluck ShinawatraImage: AP

Author: Miriam Wong
Editor: Darren Mara