THAILAND: Land of Smiles - and Grimaces

  • Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

The lese-majeste law, meant to protect the dignity of the monarchy, condemns a violator to a maximum of 15 years in jail for a single act or expression deemed by courts to have defamed the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

Giving the LM law teeth are provisions in the criminal code that date back over 100 years.

More recently the LM has been bolstered by the computer crimes act (CCA), approved by a national legislature appointed by the junta that grabbed power following Thailand’s last coup in 2006.

The CCA warns of a maximum of five years in jail for a single violation. 'There is a huge amount of self-censorship now because of the LM law.

People are afraid to speak,' says Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior Thai journalist, who learnt on Wednesday from a popular alternative news website that he is being targeted for an LM complaint.

'There is a chilling effect even before formal complaints are filed at a police station,' he told IPS.

The predicament the 44-year-old faces for his writings that question the excesses of LM is one shared by Suraphot Thaweesak, who teaches Buddhism at a university in Hua Hin, a resort town south of Bangkok.

The latter was summoned to a police station for a breach of LM early this month after he posted comments on ‘Prachatai,’ the alternative news website, about an article that examines the role of the monarchy in Thai society and politics.

Between these two brushes with LM, Joe Gordon, a Thai-born United States citizen, was sentenced on Dec. 8 for translating into Thai a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and posting it on a website.

The courts condemned Gordon to a two-and-a-half year term in prison. But of the LM stories that occasionally make it to the pages of the Thai press none can compare with the unprecedented coverage following the conviction in late November of Ampol Tangnoppakul, an ailing 61-year-old retired truck driver.

The Thai grandfather was slapped with a 20-year jail term for sending four text messages from a mobile phone, one of the longest prison sentences ever for an LM violation.

The courts ruled that the short messaging service (SMS) text Ampol had sent to the secretary of a former prime minister had defamed Queen Sirikit.

'His case has shocked many people, even those Thais who are conservative and supportive of the establishment,' revealed Punagthong Pawakapan, assistant professor of international affairs at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

'Comments on websites, blogs and Facebook show how worried people are at the extreme lengths this draconian law is taken to.'

They have been shaken that something as commonplace as 'sms' text has resulted in such a harsh sentence, she told IPS. 'Many people have been touched because they can relate to his situation.' The culture of secrecy that surrounds LM cases — where the actual number of LM victims remains unknown and the conviction rate is reportedly 90 percent — has further undermined the reputation Thailand once enjoyed as a bastion of free expression in Southeast Asia.

Even global human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International (AI) that monitor cases of political prisoners have been stumped.

'Amnesty is unfortunately not able to assign a number of political prisoners in Thailand since the 2006 coup on account of the opacity of the justice system with respect to political imprisonment,' Benjamin Zawacki, Asia researcher for AI, told IPS.

'Consider, just for starters, the enormous disparity between the number of LM cases known to those of us who follow that issue and the numbers (themselves not consistent) coming from various government agencies,' he explained, adding that AI has 'no plans' for a report to expose the number of people jailed in Thailand for LM.

Analysts trace this darker side of Thailand’s politics to the crisis — and deep social divisions — that emerged after the 2006 coup, this kingdom’s 18th military putsch. The annual average of LM cases from 1984 to 2004 was less than five, says David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic. 'By 2010, there were 478 cases.'

This spike in cases, which became glaring with 126 LM charges in 2007, even prompted some commentators in Thai media to describe the trend as LM 'hysteria' and a 'witch hunt' by the political establishment, noted Strackfuss, author of ‘Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lese-Majeste’.

'It appears that the pro-establishment people have panicked over the past few years, leading to arbitrary use of the law,' Strackfuss said. It was in this climate that a few Thai and foreign academics broke the years of silence over LM and began a push for reforms.

A Bangkok-based university held a public discussion in 2008, followed by a campaign the following year to make changes to the law.

'Many have begun to say more openly that we cannot let the injustice of the LM law go on like this,' Thongchai Winishakul, a U.S.-based Thai academic who led these reform campaigns, told IPS. 'The LM issue is giving a bad reputation to the country.'

But that hardly troubles Thailand’s powerful army chief. 'Personally, I feel we should not talk about this (law) and I don’t want it to go overboard,' Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists this week. 'If people think Thai law is unjust or too harsh, they can go and live abroad,' he suggested.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service