Thai writer: End prosecution for ‘insulting king’

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By GRANT PECK , 01.13.09, 11:18 AM EST

A Thai academic facing charges of insulting the monarchy called Tuesday for a campaign to abolish the law under which he could be jailed for 15 years.

Ji Ungpakorn, a prominent activist and political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said police have asked to question him over a book he wrote about Thailand’s 2006 military coup.

His case is the latest sign of ideological struggle over the role of the monarchy, a subject that was once taboo. There has been a recent spate of complaints and prosecutions for lese majeste – as the charge is called – and increased censorship of Web sites allegedly critical of the institution.

Those who have faced lese majeste complaints in the past year include a fledgling Australian novelist, a BBC reporter, a prominent Buddhist intellectual and an activist who refused to stand up during the traditional playing of the Royal Anthem (nyse: ATHnews people ) before a movie.

Ji said at a news conference that the lese majeste law, which mandates a jail term of three to 15 years for defaming the king, the queen or the heir to the throne, “restricts freedom of speech and expression and does not allow for public accountability and transparency of the institution of the monarchy.”

He charged that it is used “as a tool by the military, and other authoritarian elites, in order to protect their own interests.” He claimed he was being targeted for political reasons because he criticized the military and its coup.

Newly elected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised to take “all measures” to prevent people from defaming the monarchy.

But Ji, who is the son of one of the most respected civil servants in modern Thailand, the late Central Bank Governor Puey Ungpakorn, called for “an international and national political campaign to defend democratic rights in Thailand and for the abolition of the Lese Majeste law.”

Until recently, prosecutions under the law have been uncommon – usually a handful a year – not surprising in a country where the 81-year-old king is almost universally revered as a selfless and hardworking benefactor of the people.

But questions about the monarchy have assumed a higher profile lately as consideration is given to the eventual succession of Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving head of state and the only monarch most Thais have ever lived under.

Although he is a constitutional monarch who reigns but does not rule, Bhumibol – with the backing of the military – has since the 1960s held commanding political influence, usually exercised only in times of national crisis.

But his influence was challenged by the rise of billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2001 and whose party won an unprecedented absolute majority in Parliament in a 2005 general election. Thaksin won the devotion of the country’s rural majority with populist policies that directly benefited them, such as low-cost universal health care.

One of the reasons the army gave for ousting Thaksin was a claim that he had treated the king with disrespect.

When Thaksin’s political allies regained power in a December 2007 general election, the fight over the former prime minister was revived, and his critics again claimed to be defending the monarchy in their bid to remove all those connected with Thaksin from power. Their confrontational protests culminated in the weeklong occupation of Bangkok’s two airports at the end of last year.

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