A Victim of Thailand's Lese-Majeste Law Dies

Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul, 61, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, has died. His death is a slap in the face of the Thai hyper-royalists who have employed the draconian lèse-majesté law as a political weapon to control differences in political views in society.

Akong died early today, 8 May 2012, after complaining about severe stomach pain since Friday. He died in a government hospital, not long after he had decided to request for a royal pardon. Previously he had always maintained his innocence. But the chance of him being set free was slim as long as he refused to admit his guilt.

Akong was found guilty on four counts under the lèse-majesté law and computer crime laws. He was accused of sending four text messages which supposedly insulted the royal family. It has never been proven that indeed Akong had sent out those messages.

The increasing number of lese-majeste cases in Thailand in the past few years has worsened the human rights situation in this country. In many ways, the Akong case is no different from any other. The many reasons behind the use of the law range from: sustaining the myths that surround the monarchy; protecting the institution; cloaking anxiety over the royal succession; controlling society; prolonging the military's role in politics (as the protector of national security); and coping with the technological revolution in cyberspace.

But the more the law is employed for political purposes, the more it indeed weakens the monarchy. Its discursive usage highlights a sense of desperation, not authority. In the wake of Akong’s death, many hardcore royalists celebrated. They continue to advocate harsh measures against so-called anti-monarchy elements. However, consequently, they play a major part in reducing the level of reverence towards the monarchy. Monarchists are the ones who breed anti-monarchists.

Interestingly, it appeared that lèse-majesté charges were made in a much more focused way prior to the 2006 coup. For example, even Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party at one time accused the Democrat Party of committing lèse-majesté, for allegedly exploiting the monarchy in its election campaign. Similarly, Thaksin and Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also blamed each other for disrespecting the royal institution.

After the coup, with the political space much more open, law enforcers began to target virtually anyone with different ideas. Treason seems to be everywhere. The lèse-majesté law emerged as a device to silence political dissent.

Statistically, in 2005, 33 charges came before the Court of First Instance; they later handed down 18 decisions on those cases. In 2007, the number of charges had increased almost fourfold to 126. This number jumped to 164 in 2009, and then tripled to 478 cases in 2010. The most dramatic increases came under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which adopted a royalist line with strong backing from the military. Under the current Yingluck Shinawatra government, the cases continue to go up. Yingluck seems to be content with maintaining the status quo for the sake of her government’s survival.

Sadly, Akong will not be the last in this game of reinforcing "forced affection" for the monarchy. As soon as Akong was arrested, I launched the "Thailand's Fearlessness: Free Akong" campaign on 30 November 2011, to push for the release of Akong, among other things. This campaign has been inspired by Burma's Fearlessness project, endorsed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to give courageous support for many Burmese political prisoners. It is a peaceful campaign; each signatory is required to write the name "Akong" on their palm as a gesture of support for the campaign for his freedom.

Akong was a perfect victim in this game of political revenge, in the sense that this was an elderly Thai-Chinese man, who perhaps knew little or nothing about the lèse-majesté law, who was not even able to speak Thai very well, who was possibly not well versed in using a cell phone and sending text messages, and who may have never been politically active. Yet, all these potential factors did not prevent him from being accused and arrested. And now, he has met with a tragic end.

The length of the sentence was 20 years for four SMS messages. Is this Thailand? This is a country where the king is supposedly much loved and respected by all Thais. This is also the country that has the most severe lèse-majesté law in the world.

Thailand's Fearlessness campaign was meant to send a strong message for the immediate release of Akong and all political prisoners, and more importantly, for the reform, or even abolition, of this anachronistic law. In this way, Thailand can only fully become a civilized nation among others in the world. The reform of the law could possibly be done within the larger context of amending the current 2007 constitution. This would not be an easy task.

More than 1,000 people on Facebook showed their interest in joining the campaign. More than 500 people sent in their photos with the word "Akong" on their palm, as part of the display of support. Eventually, I put all these meaningful photos together in the form of a book, with a number of essays related to the lèse-majesté issue, to remind those who have abused justice that the level of tolerance among decent Thais has reached its limit. Unless we stand up to protest against Article 112, Thailand will never progress as a country where basic human rights are protected.

The death of Akong today will accelerate that process of changing in Thailand.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a former Thai diplomat and is now Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centerfor Southeast Asian Studies.)