Thailand’s Expanding Crackdown on Free Speech and Lese Majeste
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
UPDATE, December 7, 2011: A Thai court has sentenced American citizen Joe Gordon to 2 1/2 years in Thai prison for admitting to posting weblinks to a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej which was found to violate lese majeste. The 55-year-old American of Thai descent originally pleaded not guilty, but following years of delay and time spent in a dank Thai prison, Gordon agreed to a guilty plea for a reduced sentence. He may leave earlier, if the King grants him a royal pardon.
The offending book? “The King Never Smiles,” by Paul Harvey, available here and booksellers worldwide.
Due to the sensitive nature of this story and current Thai law, readers in Thailand are advised to use anonymizing programs such as Tor before clicking on any links.
Clicking “Like” on Facebook has never been so risky. At least, that’s what Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication would have you believe.
In an odd warning issued to Facebook users around the globe, Information Minister Anudith Nakornthap said last week that clicking “Share” or “Like” on any item deemed insulting to the Thai royal family would open up that user to criminal prosecution. And that means anyone using Facebook, wherever they may be in the world. Except, Anudith admitted to the Associated Press, those charged would have to voluntarily come to Thailand first:
“If a foreigner abroad clicks ‘share’ or clicks ‘like,’ then the Thai law has no jurisdiction over that. But if there is a lawsuit filed and that person then comes into Thailand, then that person will be prosecuted.”
It may seem like a joke to some, but this was just the latest salvo in a very serious and expanding battle between the Thai government and the Internet.
Last week, 61-year-old Thai truck driver Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four SMS text messages to the personal secretary of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A Thai court ruled the messages were offensive to Thailand’s Queen Sirikit and Ampon was convicted, even though he denied knowing how to send an SMS. A week earlier, Thai Facebook user “Suraphak” was charged with making defamatory statements about King Bhumibol Adulyadej online, and is now being held in jail awaiting trial. Said the prosecutor of Suraphak in court:
“The defendant, apart from not recognizing His Majesty’s graciousness towards the inhabitants, has the audacity to express great malice with the intent of overthrowing the institution of the monarchy, which is worshiped by the Thai people.”
And this February, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the news website Prachatai, will learn whether she will spend the next 15 years in prison when a Thai court rules on charges that she offended the “majesty” of the monarch. Her crime? Allowing readers to post their opinions online.
All of these cases, and many more, are raising growing alarm about free expression in Thailand. The European Union expressed “deep concern” about Apmon’s sentence, and the Asian Human Rights Commission issued a blistering condemnation of lese majeste, the crime of violating majesty. But for the moment, Thai authorities are continuing their aggressive pursuit of incorrect speech, armed with an unusual combination of a very old law and a very new one.
Lese Majeste Goes High Tech
“All Thais, I believe, love and respect the King,” says Bangkok Post political commentator and TV host Voranai Vanijaka. “But when people manipulate and abuse the law, and play with the emotions of the people, it can easily sway the sentiment of the people to one side or another.”
Voranai has written extensively about lese majeste, and most recently the case of Ampon and his 20-year sentence. In Thailand’s bitterly divided politics, lese majeste is what you might call a wedge issue – one that affects practically nobody yet stirs strong emotions in people. Accusing a political opponent of lese majeste, he says, is a surefire way to get attention:
“Pretty much all the key leaders of both sides of the political struggle have been accused by the other of lese majeste, so it’s something that’s used by both sides. Some sides may do it more effectively than others. It’s definitely being used as a tool, and for the normal average Thai person, they can be easily swayed by it because it is a deeply sensitive and emotional issue for us.”
Since the 2006 military coup, the organization ThaiPoliticalPrisoners estimates more than 300 cases of lese majeste have been brought in Thailand, and untold tens of thousands of websites shut down, using two laws. Critics say those laws are being abused by those in power to silence opponents and critics. “To make an example of people,” says Voranai.
Officially the old law is “Article 112,” but it’s more widely known by its centuries-old name, lèse majesté, or, quite literally, “injured majesty.” Lese majeste laws forbid criticism, insults or other derogatory statements about a monarch; in Thailand the law is strict and its interpretation is broad. Anyone convicted of making statements, illustrations, or even silent physical movements deemed lese majeste faces lengthy prison sentences in dingy Thai jails. And Article 112 applies to everyone in Thailand: citizens and foreigners alike have been prosecuted and jailed for “crimes” such as making comments that never even refer to the monarchy, or simply for not standing during the playing of the Royal Anthem in movie houses.
Then, in 2007, the government added a new weapon to its arsenal – the “Computer Crimes Act” (CCA) – and with it the ability to take prosecutions to online activities.
The CCA gives the government wide latitude in determining whether online content represents a threat to national stability or image. It also provides courts with potent tools to punish site owners and ISPs with harsh fines and jail time. Since its passage, Thailand has assertively pursued writers, website owners, filmmakers and even international firms like YouTube and Yahoo! for allowing material deemed lese majeste on their sites. It’s estimated that at least 50 people, and perhaps more, at present are serving prison time or under investigation for violating some combination of Article 112 and the CCA.
In another free speech twist, Thai law also forbids public criticism of any court ruling, making any discussion about lese majeste or its misuse challenging. Still, discussion appears to be growing. Television talk shows tolerate some debate, and a recent Bangkok Post editorial took Information Minister Anudith to task for his Facebook warning:
“The constant war on Internet sites is futile and actually self-defeating. The more attention Capt. Anudith puts on it, the more it encourages the ill-intentioned to try to defy him. The idea that discussion of the lese majeste law is somehow disloyal to the monarchy is emotionally loaded, but empty. The law cannot affect love of the monarch. It was His Majesty the King who declared six years ago in the most straightforward way that, ”The King can do wrong,” and ”Actually, I must also be criticised.”’
But talk is just that. Actions are an altogether different matter.
The Monarchy as Political Battleground
The divisions in Thai politics are as raw now as at the time of the 2006 military coup that pushed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Since then, the pro-Thaksin, anti-military groups – roughly the “Red Shirts” – have been in a standoff with pro-military, Democrat party-led loyalists – roughly the “Yellow Shirts.” The Democrat party has recently accused Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s of going soft on disloyal comments, even urging that all social networking sites be blocked. Caught in the middle is the monarchy, and curiously those who seek political reform.
“Thailand is involved in a historic struggle,” says ‘PP,’ an activist with the group “Political Prisoners in Thailand.” We recently reached ‘PP,’ a pseudonyn, in a secured online connection to discuss that group’s goals and activities. Asked specifically about the organization, ‘PP’ declined to give specifics, citing security concerns, but did say the group has members in Thailand and elsewhere in southeast Asia, and seeks reform of lese majeste and expanded freedom of speech in Thailand. A representative of the Thai government in Washington declined our requests for an interview.
As ‘PP’ sees it, Article 112 and the CCA are being abused by those in power – and those seeking it – to silence critics, while hiding behind the national appeal of the monarchy to do so:
“The use of LM [lese majeste] is a conservative reaction to this societal-level change. At present, the Yingluck government’s opponents appear to have decided that the monarchy is to be THE political battleground. Hence, they attack the government, implying a lack of loyalty. They appear to believe that pushing the Yingluck government will either reveal this disloyalty (and bring it down) or that the government will do its bidding in the repression of disloyal elements. They seem to believe that they have hit on a win-win strategy. It could all get much messier.”
One for whom things have already become messy is Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Prachatai editor now awaiting sentencing. Chiranuch, ‘Jiew’ to her friends, is actually facing two sets of charges; one for an article published on Prachatai, and another for comments left by an anonymous reader. The government says the comments violated lese majeste, and that under the CCA, Chiranuch had an obligation to remove them immediately. (The comments, as with any items accused of being insensitive to the royal family, have been removed and are not publicly visible. In fact, anyone citing any of those items – even a journalist – would be similarly guilty of violating the laws.)
“The Internet is a means of communication…Authorities are trying to silence [people],” says Chiranuch. Her verdict delayed by the Thai flooding, she waits for a court to decide her fate in February. In the meantime, she continues working at Prachatai:
“We decided to close down the web forum discussions, but we will continue our news and articles, and we’re still open for people to come and read and learn. Thai authorities believe they can control the electronic media. There was a law, the computer crimes act, only three or four years old. They’re trying to show the people they’re serious about these things. [But] if people are suppressed, they’ll find another way around. And people who’ve never done that before will probably start to get angry, and do something to show they’re against efforts to control.”
In other words, shutting down the Internet – as Egyptian officials learned – doesn’t always give the government control.
Along with the EU and the Asian Human Rights Commission, the United States also expressed dismay at Ampon’s sentence of 20 years in prison. But will that make any difference?
Unlikely, says ‘PP’ with Political Prisoners in Thailand. “Human rights organizations and major Western governments have generally been pretty hopeless in dealing with lese majeste and with the human rights challenges [they] pose.” That said, the future for Ampon – and dozens others convicted of lese majeste – is dim. Thai prisons are notoriously brutal and squalid, and for those who never admitted guilt but, like Amphon and Chiranuch, pleaded not guilty, there is little to no chance of a royal pardon.
Yet things may be changing, if slowly and with some pain. A recent ad campaign has been launched to promote debate about Article 112 within Thailand. Consistently simply of a hand, a yellow ball, and some very artfully worded copy, the ad asks if, in fact, people aren’t genuinely interested in asking questions.
As a political statement, it’s pretty tame; in the U.S., where political ads are delivered by the rhetorical equivalent of dynamite, it would most likely just leave people confused. But the issue of lese majeste is one of the most explosive in Thailand, and proponents of all sorts of positions are grabbing at it to build support for their cause – or intimidate their enemies. Says Voranai Vanijaka:
“There are improvements in terms of civic groups, more improvements to champion the cause of freedom of speech. Of course, at the same time, there is more censorship right now in Thailand than, say, in the past 20 years. That has to do with the political situation more than anything else…and censorship is an important tool one can use to silence your opponents. So the lese majeste and Computer Crime Act are being used to shut your opponents up and also make examples out of people.”
And more people are paying attention. Andrew Spooner, writing in Asian Corresondent, recently wrote of Ampon – or “Ar Kong,” meaning grandfather, as some call him:
“What is certain is that the savagery of Ampon’s sentence is pushing the situation to breaking point. As I sit and write a 61-year-old grandfather is rotting in a Thai prison – the message is stark; this could happen to anyone. We are all Ar Kong now.”
Whatever the outcome, Chiranuch Premchaiporn says the online site Prachatai will continue, as will the struggle for expanded freedom of expression.
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*Correction: December 8, 2011. I mistakenly identified current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as being no relation to ousted P.M. Thaksin Shinawatra. This is obviously incorrect; Yingluck is Thaksin’s sister.