Since the military coup, the number of lèse majesté cases has been rising in Thailand as the chances of the accused grow even slimmer under the junta’s rule.
The trial was about to start when everybody except the defendants and their lawyers were asked to leave the room. Despite negotiations by observers and in the presence of representatives from the European Union and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the court officials insist the session to continue “in camera” – in other words: behind closed doors.
Some time later it emerged from behind these closed doors that one of the accused, Kathawut B., a radio host associated with the red shirts, has been denied bail for the sixth time, the court citing national security reasons and deeming the defendant a flight risk. Explaining why the public was shut out of the proceeding, the judges claim that these kind of cases could negatively affect “public order and good moral” despite the fact that such cases have mostly been held in public.
The reason cases like Kathawut are becoming more strict is because Kathawut is being tried for lèse majesté.
The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to “defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison.
Coinciding (many observers argue even directly correlating) with the growing political polarization of the past years, the number of lèse majesté related complaints have sky-rocketed even reaching far into the hundreds in 2010. Often such complaints have been politically motivated, either to attack a political opponent or because an individual is perceived as a threat to Thai ultra-conservatism (read our 2013 summary here.)
Things have gotten considerably worse since the coup in May 2014, as the military junta announced days after the hostile takeover of powers that certain cases including lèse majesté are being sent to a military court.
The past few months saw a considerable surge in arrests, trials and sentences relating to lèse majesté cases. The independent news website Prachatai and the legal advocacy group iLaw have compiled a list of such cases on top of those already imprisoned, last updated on September 10, 2014. Among the 21 cases, they include:
7 Apichat P., a graduate student at Thammasat University, who joined a protest against the coup on 23 May 2014 and was arrested. He was the first person that been charged with lese majeste after the 2014 coup. (…) He had been detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison for 26 days before released because the court denied the police’s custody petition. (…)
9 Sombat Boonngam-anong, aka Nuling, a red-shirt activist, was summoned by the NCPO to report himself. Sombat defied the order by hiding himself from the authorities but still was very active online. He was arrested on 5 June 2014 and detained for 7 days in an army camp. He was charged with sedition and was granted bail for the charge. Later police from northeastern province of Roi-et detained him and accused him of posting picture deemed lese majeste on Facebook. Sonbat was granted bail. (…)
14 Patiwat S., a student activist from northeastern Khon Kaen University, was charged with lèse majesté for taking part in a political play “The Wolf Bride” about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.
15 Pornthip M., a theatre artist and former leading member of Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn performance arts group, was charged with lèse majesté. She was accused of being involved with the political play “The Wolf Bride” about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.
16 Yuthasak, a taxi driver, was reported by one of his passenger of defaming the King. The passenger also gave the police the record of their conversation in January 2014. The police from Phayathai police station arrested him from a taxi garage on 2 June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.
17 Akaradej, An undergraduate student from Mahanakorn University of Technology, was accused of posting messages deemed lese majeste on Facebook in early 2014. It was his Facebook “friend” which reported the case to the police station in Sutthisan district. The police arrested him at his house in June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.
“2014 coup marks the highest number of lese majeste prisoners in Thai history,” Prachatai English, September 10, 2014
In addition, the following cases have occurred in the past few weeks:
- A musician was sentenced to an unprecedentedly harsh 30 years in jail for lèse majesté and violating the Computer Crime Act by a court in Ubon Ratchathani in early October. A legal academic also argues that the judges have incorrectly added 3 years. Since the defendant pleaded guilty, the prison sentence was halved to 15 years.
- American journalist Tom Plate interviewed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and this resulted in the 2011 book “Conversations with Thaksin: From Exile to Deliverance: Thailand’s Populist Tycoon Tells His Story.” Suranand Vejjajiva, former secretary-general to toppled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister), translated this book into Thai. All three are subject to a lèse majesté complaint filed by a former MP of the then-opposition Democrat Party, claiming some parts in the book are “harmful to the royal institution.”
- Veteran political activist Jaran Ditapichai was charged with lèse majesté on October 16 for organizing the theater play “The Wolf Bride” which resulted in two other people involved in the production also being charged (see the list above). Jaran is currently in exile in Europe.
- Two retired army officers filed a lèse majesté complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa last week, accusing the 82-year-old of insulting the medieval 17th-century King Naresuan during a seminar.
- “Same Sky” publishing house has been threatened twice by the military junta with a lèse majesté charge. First, they demanded to delete a Facebook post deemed offensive. Secondly, they ordered Same Sky to stop selling t-shirts with motives they think are offensive. The editor, Thanapol Eawsakul, has been arrested and released twice without trial BBC Thai reports.
It seems that in this current atmosphere – where the media is under close watch, the internet reportedly heavily monitored and public displays dissent not tolerated by the junta – that ultra-royalists in Thailand have almost free reign to act against what they perceive as a threat to the nation and the monarchy.
This is further underlined by the junta’s announcement to rigorously prosecute lèse majesté offenders, in a bid to bolster its moral legitimacy and also make the case of an anti-monarchy movement (and thus one of the needs for a military coup in the first place). It also even seeks extradition of suspects abroad, while junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha recently told them to come back to Thailand voluntarily and promised a “fair” trial.
The ongoing existence of martial law in Thailand has helped in the reactivation of the cyber-scout program, which recruits students into an online volunteer force combing the internet for allegedly offensive content.
In this climate, it also seemingly doesn’t matter how frivolous some of these charges are, as the complaint against Plate, Thaksin and Suranand was filed by a political rival.
But the complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa for allegedly insulting the medieval King Naresuan is particularly ludicrous. The 17th-century king has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the Thai public recently, as he has been the subject of a dramatized bio-epic series – the most recent part launched in Thai cinemas shortly after the coup and the junta organized free nationwide movie screenings for it.
Nevertheless, the implications of this complaint if this actually goes to trial are even more severe: as mentioned above, the law only applies to the current king, queen, heir-apparent and regent. However, the Supreme Court decided last year that it also covers past kings, as a defendant was found guilty to have insulted King Rama IV., who ruled from 1851 to 1868. If Sulak was found guilty, it could affect several centuries of history and it would make for instance critical academic research into it nigh impossible.
It would also re-draw the invisible line of lèse majesté, making it even harder to navigate the legal boundaries of Thailand’s already draconian law.