BANGKOK – Public debate around Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws and related restrictions on freedom of expression appears to be growing, even as the country’s election-focused political parties steer clear of the issue in advance of July 3 polls.
The head of the Thai Army, Gen Prayuth Chanocha, recently warned political parties against involving Thailand’s royal family in the election campaign. However, a number of separate civil society requests to amend the relevant section of the country’s Criminal Code are underway, with some writers and scholars – the latter known as the Nitirassadorn group – recently proposing amendments to the lèse-majesté laws, which would seemingly bring Thailand in line with constitutional monarchies elsewhere.
Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code concerns offences deemed to defame, insult or threaten the King, the Queen, the Heir Apparent or the Regent. Lèse-majesté carries a jail sentence of 3-15 years. Separately, Thailand’s Computer-Related Crimes Act makes it an offence to post online comments that endanger national security or come into conflict with Article 112 of the Criminal Code. Under the CCA and various emergency laws, tens of thousands of websites have been blocked in Thailand, prompting claims that freedom of expression is on the wane in the country.
It is unclear if the Thai public at large is interested in the issue or how much traction the amendment campaigns will gain. Whether or not the country’s political leadership – current or future – will address the issue is equally unclear. According to the Matichon newspaper, Thailand’s outgoing Minister of Culture and election candidate Niphit Intarasombat says that he does not see any problem with the lèse majesté law.
‘I’ve never seen Article 112 being used as a political tool, and over 99% of politicians have no problem with the law”, he said, adding that “Thailand still has a monarch as head of state and a unifying force, so we should have the law to protect the institution,’ he said.
However, according to Sulak Sivirak – an outspoken commentator who has been charged with lèse-majesté in the past – “none of Thailand’s political parties can spell out what they mean by constitutional monarchy”.
David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial, a study of the Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, adds that the number of cases in Thailand has grown hugely in recent years.
“From 1990 to 2005, there were an average of 5-6 cases per year”, he said, speaking at Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club on Tuesday May 24. Since then, however, he estimates that there have been more than 300 cases, which could be partly-accounted for by the law’s provision that allows any citizen make allegations against another.
According to former Thai Prime Minster Anand Panyarachun, who spoke at the same venue a week earlier – the key problem is that the current version of Article 112 allows any Thai to allege that someone insulted the monarchy. Anand headed the National Reform Committee set up after the 2010 anti-Government redshirt protests and ensuing street fighting in Bangkok.
There is no definitive headcount of those currently in prison for defaming the members of the Thai Royal Family, with Streckfuss estimating that detainees could number over 200. Dr Niran Phitakwatchara of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) – an independent body established separately from Government – says that the NHRC will request the police and other agencies to provide information on who has been charged under Article 112, in an attempt to get a clear picture of the numbers detained.
The latest high-profile case is against Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University who recently published a letter commenting on a TV interview given by a member of the Thailand’s Royal Family.
Other publicized cases include those of Chiranuch Premchaiporn and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul. Chiranuch is director of news and current affairs website Prachatai, and is charged under the Computer Related Crimes Act – not for comments she made – but for not immediately deleting comments made by third parties on the Prachatai web-forum, which were allegedly in breach of Article 112. The remainder of her trial has been postponed until later in 2011, after part of the prosecution hearings took place in February 20111.
Redshirt supporter Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul remains in jail, despite her initial 2009 behind-closed-doors conviction being deemed a mistrial during an appeal held in February 2011. Her case has been passed on to the country’s Constitutional Court and a retrial is due to take place later in 2011.
On Friday, news broke that a Thailand-born American citizen had been arrested, apparently for breaching Article 112 and the CCA, though a US spokesman in Bangkok said that the Embassy there was still trying to ascertain the precise nature of the charges.Show