Two articles in a now-defunct magazine may carry a huge cost for its 50-year-old editor if prosecutors prove they defamed Thailand’s monarchy: up to three decades in prison – 15 years for each story.
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a supporter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was formally charged Monday with breaking this Southeast Asian kingdom’s “lese majeste” laws, becoming the latest target of a controversial set of legal provisions designed to protect the crown.
The legislation is the harshest of its kind in the world, and in the five tumultuous years since the army toppled Thaksin, cases like Somyot’s are being prosecuted more than ever. Now, a small but unprecedented movement has begun speaking out against what they see as an increasing abuse of the laws by an elite establishment bent on silencing its critics.
In the last few months, hundreds of prominent writers, filmmakers, lawyers and journalists have signed petitions calling for reform of the constitution’s Article 112, which mandates three to 15 years in jail for “whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent.” Also in their sights: related provisions in the 2007 Computer Crimes Act that have enabled prosecutors to ramp up penalties dramatically.
“The time has come for people to raise their voices,” said webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who faces 20 years in prison herself for failing to remove allegedly offensive reader comments from an online news forum quickly enough. “We cannot keep silent anymore.”
Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an intensely idolised figure here, and few if any Thais would condone insulting him. But the rising lese majeste caseload “has greatly undermined Thailand’s democratic credentials and done more harm than good to the royal institution the laws are designed to protect,” Shawn Crispin, a regional spokesman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Friday.
Protecting the law from abuse will not be easy. The army says defending the crown must take priority because it is an issue of national security. Lawmakers and politicians routinely avoid the subject because even debating it can be taboo; the woman expected to be Thailand’s next prime minister, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, has said she has no plans to reform the law, calling it “quite sensitive.”
“Our modest demand is that there be open public discussion,” said Chiranuch, who is a member of a loose group called Article 112 Awareness Campaign, which has tried to stir debate with low-key marches, seminars and a Facebook site. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t fix it.”
Though lese majeste sentences are often reduced after conviction and many complaints never make it to trial, the constant threat of jail time has created a climate of fear that fuels self-censorship and stifles freedom of expression, said the 44-year-old webmaster, whose next court appearance is in September.
Somyot launched the Voice of Thaksin magazine in 2009, and the two articles in question were published under pseudonyms in February 2010.
Authorities banned the magazine a few months later, invoking an emergency decree imposed after anti-government protesters from the mostly pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement paralysed downtown Bangkok for two months.
Somyot wasn’t arrested until April 30 of this year, and there is speculation prosecutors are pursuing the case against him for another reason: he had been gathering signatures for a petition to revoke Article 112.
Sensitivity over the monarchy has risen as the health of King Bhumibol has declined in recent years, sparking concern over the future of an institution that has long united the country.
Thailand has also been plagued by political unrest since the 2006 coup, which many have come to view as a struggle between the disenfranchised poor and an elite old-guard – powerful businesspeople, the army and the palace – that has fought back by pursuing more lese majeste cases.
Statistics obtained by The Associated Press from Thailand’s Office of the Attorney general show that 36 lese majeste cases were sent for prosecution in 2010, compared to 18 in 2005 and just one in 2000.
The figures do not include those filed under the Computer Crimes Act, nor the myriad complaints under investigation that have yet to reach trial.
This year, a Thai court sentenced Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul, operator of a Red Shirt-affiliated website, to 13 years in jail on lese majeste charges. Police also jailed Thai-born American Joe Gordon in part for allegedly posting a link on his blog to a banned biography of the monarch.
The army, meanwhile, leveled lese majeste accusations at 18 core Red Shirt members and filed a complaint against historian Somsak Jeamtheerasakul for allegedly insulting the king’s daughter. A protest by Somsak’s supporters included an almost unheard of sight: people carrying placards with the number “112″ crossed out.
“They’re using it as a political tool to destroy their enemies,” Worachet Pakeerut, a law professor at Thammasat University, said of the law.
He is leading an academic group proposing the constitutional clause be amended to reduce the maximum sentence and restrict those who can file charges to The Bureau of the Royal Household, one of the monarchy’s offices.
One reason the legislation is vulnerable to abuse “is because anybody can file a lese majeste complaint,” Worachet said. “Nobody is questioning whether the monarchy is good for Thailand. But we have to modernise.”
According to i-Law, a Thai group that monitors Internet censorship, the government blocked around 75,000 websites in 2010 – 57,000 of them for containing lese majeste content.
The Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI, is currently handling about 20 lese majeste cases and has assigned 80 officials to monitor the Internet for subversive content, according to its deputy directory, Col. Yanaphon Youngyuen.
The government is also setting up “cyber scout” units in three ministries to train private citizens to act as online whistle-blowers.
David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based American scholar, said there is a political “witch-hunt going on.” But he also sees a deeper struggle over democratic freedom that pits rivals across the chasm created by the 2006 coup.
“One side is pushing for an opening of the public sphere, and they have begun challenging what can and can’t be said,” Streckfuss said. The other side “is trying to trying to close that space to preserve the past.” -By Todd Pitman