Lese-Majeste Continues in Thailand

Critics in Thailand are concerned that the arrest of Noravej Sethiwongse, a 23-year-old former student for lèse-majesté in Bangkok last Friday indicates that the country’s remaining power structure shows no intention of letting up on arrests for alleged insults to the royalty despite their defeat in July 9 national polls.

The government is being watched closely for signs by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the Red Shirt pro-democracy movement, whether Yingluck and her team are shying away from doing anything about either the lèse-majesté law, which has been called the strictest in the world, or the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which also has been used to jail opponents who have posted remarks on the Internet.

Despite the fact that Yingluck was only elected premier last Friday – the same day Noravej was arrested -- there is already suspicion on the part of some of the more radical Red Shirts that Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, aren’t particularly serious about democratic reforms. Although earlier Pheu Thai leaders had said no Red Shirts would be given cabinet positions, Nattawut Saikua is expected to be given the post of Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office. It is unknown if there will be more.

The elites, particularly the military and royalists who vainly backed former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party in the election that brought Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party to power, may be seeking to continue to assert their power, some sources say. Other arrests may have been made as well, but have not been made public. Prachatai, an independent website, reported that as many as 11 people have been arrested on either computer crimes violations or for lese-majeste, but that couldn’t be confirmed. Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, an NGO that seeks to track political arrests, told Asia Sentinel it could only confirm the arrest of Noravej.

One sign greeted as encouraging is that at the same time Noravej was being arrested, Pheu Thai leader Jatuporn Promphan, an elected MP, in jail on terrorism and lèse-majesté charges, was released on bail by the authorities and reported for duty at the Parliament to vote for Yingluck as premier..

“Amongst other things we hope that Yingluck’s administration will seek to promote long-neglected human rights issues, including the reform/abolition of the lèse-majesté and computer crimes laws,” said Political Prisoners in Thailand, an NGO that seeks to protect political prisoners held in Thai jails. “Indeed, her administration must undo much of the degradation of human rights that took place under the military-backed, royalist regime fronted by Abhisit Vejjajiva.”

Noravej allegedly committed the offense, which makes him liable for up to 15 years in prison, before the election when he was a senior accounting student at Kasetsart University in Bangkok by posting a comment on the Internet. Charges were filed against him by Nipon Limlamtong, a deputy rector at the university. He was arrested at his new job by police, according to FACT. Nipon told reporters in Bangkok that he had been pressed to file the charges by the University Council and that the complaint was filed in a bid to protect the school’s reputation.

The youth thus became the 475th person to be charged either under Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the Computer Crimes Act, according to FACT. Between 2006 and May of this year, more than 400 cases came to trial, an exponential increase compared with the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, in which only four or five cases came to trial.

Some observers had expected lèse-majesté cases to begin to fade away with the decisive national electoral victory by Pheu Thai. It is the parliament, however, that must act to scrap the law, not the new administration. In the meantime, the law is so broad that almost anybody can file charges against anybody alleging offense to the royal family, as Nipon did against the student. The law states that "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."

There is no standard of what constitutes defamation or insult, however. Cases have been filed by state authorities or by individuals, or anyone who wants to take action against anyone else. Famously, both the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother and his arch-enemy, the publishing magnate Sondhi Limtongkul and leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or the Yellow Shirts, filed charges against each other during the political crisis of 2005 and 2006 that resulted in the royalist coup that brought down Thaksin’s government and ultimately made him a fugitive on corruption charges.

The question is how much leeway the police have in ignoring lèse-majesté complaints until or if the law is abolished or modified. Critics have long charged that the military, which has more or less ruled the country since the absolute monarchy was deposed in 1932, was using the law to suppress dissent in cases that had nothing to do with the monarchy and everything to do with maintaining itself in power. Neither the king nor any member of the royal family themselves has ever filed a lèse-majesté case. Those who have been accused have included the vice president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and an author who allegedly insulted Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in a novel he published himself and which sold almost no copies.