A Cat Can't Look at a Queen

Additional names of individuals in jail have surfaced in Thailand on charges of insulting the royalty, for offences as slight as not standing up for the royal anthem in a movie theater in Bangkok. According to a Thailand-based website on political prisoners named nine individuals in jail. Another two, one an Australian teacher, have already been sentenced to long prison terms.

With the Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, growing more infirm at the age of 82, there appears to be a growing power struggle for succession between forces aligned with the unpopular Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn. Queen Sirikit in particular has become deeply enmeshed in politics, intervening publicly on the side of forces that successfully overthrew the popularly elected government supported by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was previously driven from power by a royalist-backed military coup in October 2006. With the palace involved in the political situation, protecting the monarchy’s reputation has become a priority.

The website, Political Prisoners in Thailand (http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/) has been blocked in Thailand. Insulting the king or anyone connected to him can result n a prison term of three to 15 years. Recently, the Australian teacher, Harry Nicolaides, was sentenced to three years for a paragraph in a book that sold seven copies, according to the website. Also sentenced last November to 12 years in prison was Boonyuen Prasertying, who was charged after speeches she made at a pro-Thaksin rally. Her sentence was reduced to six years as a result of her confession. At least two individuals have fled rather than face charges, and two bloggers under the names "Phraya Pichai" and "Thonchan" are said to be held quietly in custody without being charged, according to the website.

Most of the names have been known. Latest among them is Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Chulalongkorn University political science professor and writer who has written several pieces charging the royalty with being behind the October coup. He was ordered to appear at a Bangkok police station on Jan. 20, to be charged for a series of passages in his book, "A Coup for the Rich." Ungpakorn, many of whose articles have appeared in Asia Sentinel, has chosen to fight the charges publicly, sending out a blizzard of releases to foreign organizations and readers, asking them to put pressure on the Thai government to cease using the lèse majesté charge as a political weapon to quell dissent. When Amnesty International declined to take up lèse majesté cases, apparently over visa concerns, he asked readers to "consider switching to some other human rights organization."

A second prominent figure is Jakropob Penkair, a former spokesman for Thaksin, who was accused of insulting the royalty at a speech before the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand that seemed as much aimed at Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s privy counselor. The speech can be found here: http://thaipoliticalprisoners.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/jakrapob-at-the-fcct1.pdf

From there down, it is remarkable how fine the mills of Thai justice grind in seeking out growing dissent. Almost 3,000 websites that carry information critical of the royalty have been shut down, and more will be, authorities say.

The others imprisoned, according to the website, are these:

  • Chotisak Onsoong, 26, and a female friend were charged last April after a member of the audience in a Bangkok theater complained the couple had not stood during the ritual playing of the royal anthem. The case apparently grew out of a heated argument when they were urged to stand up by the bystander. The couple later filed a complaint against the man, saying they had been verbally and physically abused. He retaliated by filing the lèse majesté complaint. Chotisak remains in jail while his case is being investigated.

  • Jitra Kotchadej, a union activist and friend of Chotisak’s, she was fired in August from the clothing factory where she worked, according to the website, in August, for appearing on a TV panel discussion wearing a T-shirt saying "Not standing is not a crime," a reference to Chotisak. It is not known if she has been charged by police.

  • Sulak Sivaraksa, a 75-year-old academic and long-time critic of the use of lèse majesté charges, was taken from his Bangkok home late one night in November 2008 and driven 450 km to a police station in the northeast province of Khon Kaen, where he was charged for insulting the monarchy for a December, 2007 lecture. It was the third time Sulak has been charged, the first in 1984 although the case was later withdrawn after an international outcry. In 1991, he was arrested after a speech in which he attacked the military coup that overthrew the government. Sulak fought the case until he won, in 1995. Other allegations were made against Sulak in 2006.

  • Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, known in Bangkok as "Da Torpedo," Darunee, a pro-Thaksin and self-proclaimed pro-democracy campaigner, was arrested in July after a 30-minute speech denouncing the 2006 coup and the monarchy. She is still behind bars, although it is not known if she has been formally charged, the website said.

  • Suwicha Thakor was arrested on Jan. 14 on suspicion of posting comments on the Internet that insulted the monarchy.

  • The final suspect is Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai media tycoon who played an integral role in bringing down the democratically elected People’s Power Party government that came to power in the wake of the coup against Thaksin. A leader of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy. The PAD was responsible for the mob that closed Bangkok’s two airports and ultimately caused the collapse of the government. Sondhi is said to be particularly close to Queen Sirikit. Few observers expect Sondhi to actually be charged. He was cited for repeating some of Da Torpedo’s speech.