Testing Free Speech in Thailand

Asia Sentinel





Daniel Ten Kate
11 October 2007

Bills to block critics from criticizing the king’s advisors are quickly withdrawn

thaitest2Thailand’s military-appointed legislature this week proposed — and then abruptly withdrew — two bills that would have made it illegal to criticize the king’s senior advisors.

Many saw the bills — supported by military men, judges and, surprisingly, some journalists — as expressly designed to protect Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief and prime minister that analysts and critics alike suspect of masterminding the September 2006 overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup. Indeed, since it is outright illegal for anyone to criticize the king, Prem has become a proxy punching bag of sorts for those who believe that the palace has been intervening too often in politics.

In the months preceding the coup, the long-powerful Prem, dressed up in full military gear, called on the army to be loyal to the king instead of the government. The statement implied a rift between the two, and many analysts saw it as a green light for a military takeover.

Prem has also met frequently with the coupmakers and made a number of veiled political statements in the past year, even obliquely likening Thaksin to Adolf Hitler in remarks posted on his website. These moves prompted pro-Thaksin groups to tear into the senior statesman, even organizing rallies in front of his house earlier this year that turned violent and led to several arrests.

The final straw that prompted the 64 conservative legislators to propose the bills appears to have been this YouTube video that accuses Prem of seeking to usurp the throne. The video infuriated government officials, but the current lese majeste law only protects the king, queen, heir apparent and regent, and so the video is not illegal.

Since nearly everything about Thailand’s monarchy is shrouded in secrecy, it’s impossible for most of the public to know what role Prem or the palace played in the September 2006 coup. However, Prem’s public statements and actions have undermined any claims that the 19-member Privy Council somehow sits loftily “above politics.”

Weng Tojirakarn, an anti-coup leader who helped organize the protests in front of Prem’s house earlier this year, said: “We did not criticize Mr. Prem as a privy councilor but we criticized him as a person who encouraged the army to interfere with democracy. Anyone who tries to overthrow the constitution illegally must be condemned according to the constitution.”

Despite the reverence for King Bhumibol Adulyadej across the country, Thailand has some of the most severe lese majeste laws in the world. Offenders could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, although convictions are rare and the King frequently pardons offenders.

One of the draft bills sought to extend lese majeste to cover the Privy Council and royal family members. The other would’ve prevented any media coverage of lese majeste cases, which human rights activists feared might open up the door for abuse since political opponents could be tossed in jail at secret court hearings.

Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, the lawmaker who proposed the bills, told reporters on Tuesday that he withdrew them after receiving a phone call from an unnamed privy councilor who told him the privy councilors opposed the bills. Media reports said the bill relating to the Privy Council and media blackouts may be scrapped, but the one that covers royal family members may go forward.

Although no explicit reason was given for tabling the bills, they immediately came under attack after being announced.

“The military-run legislature is trying to push though every kind of law to undermine democracy,” Weng said. “I think they withdrew the bills because the majority of people would oppose them.”

Surichai Wun-Gaeo, a member of parliament who is also a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, said: “As for Thai people’s respect for the monarchy, we do not need anything additional. Some people think we need to protect the Privy Council, but I think that’s too far. There are more important issues for us to discuss.”

Due to the sensitivity concerning anything related to Thailand’s monarchy, lese majeste rarely comes up for debate. Thai courts already encourage newspapers not to cover lese majeste cases, and more restrictions would only serve to further stifle the free speech environment.

The king himself has indicated that lese majeste laws put him in a tough spot. Anyone can file a lese majeste case on the king’s behalf, which means that often the charges are leveled in an attempt to discredit political opponents.

In his annual birthday speech in 2005, he said: “About going to jail, if it is about offending the King, the King is troubled in many ways…. I have followed the way: do not send them to jail, or if they are in jail, release them. If they are not in jail, I do not sue them because I will be in trouble. People who offend the King and are punished are not troubled. It’s the King who is in trouble. This is strange.”

A month after a Thai court convicted Swiss national Oliver Jufer of defacing images of the king with spray paint earlier this year, Bhumibol pardoned him. Jufer, who pleaded guilty to five counts of lese majeste and faced 10 years in prison, was then deported.

The palace has also tried to limit debate on lese majeste laws. One of the stated reasons for the September 2006 coup was an accusation that Thaksin defamed the king, but prosecutors dropped the case against Thaksin, reportedly because Bhumibol didn’t want them to go to court.

The greater problem is that “the wide interpretation of the law prevents legitimate democratic debate on the role of the Monarchy in Thai society and legitimate comments on the actions and speeches of members of the royal family. Already the lid clamped on such discussions is building up pressure in Thai society,” according to former senator Jon Ungpakorn writing this week in the Bangkok Post.

Certainly more expansive lese majeste laws would only raise the stakes for those who oppose the current dispensation. This year the government showed it was willing to ban websites like YouTube for a period of time to try to block material deemed offensive to the monarchy. But further efforts to limit free speech against privy councilors would lead the country down a path that is more draconian, and may even inspire fresh attacks on the royal institution.

As Jon wrote, “In the long run [the lese majeste draft bills] could have the very opposite effect to their stated intentions, causing both damage to the monarchy and to the Thai justice system, not to mention the effects on our democracy.”


Asia Sentinel – Testing Free Speech in Thailand



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