More Lèse-Majesté Charges in Thailand

The jailing Wednesday in Bangkok of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the popular independent Thai online news portal Prachatai, is another example of the stringent crackdown on any comment about the country's monarchy as the process to succeed the ailing 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej grows more intense.

Chiranuch was released after paying a Bt300,000 (US$9,269) bond and spending four hours in jail. The arrest was made under the Computer Crimes Act for not quickly removing public comments from her website that were deemed offensive to the monarchy. The website has become home to serious dissent and discussion of the situation in the country, which has been wracked by political turmoil, rallies, strikes and violence since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a royalist coup in September of 2006.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva, in comments after a March 2009 speech at St John's College, Oxford in the UK, said he had "sorted out Chiranuch's case and it was a misunderstanding by the police." The raid on Prachatai came shortly after Abhisit, who had only been prime minister since December of 2008, had told an audience of media people that his government respected freedom of the press.

Now the case has been taken up again, with or without Abhisit's authority, raising questions whether the military and the right wing are feeling their oats and about to engineer a tightened crackdown against the press and critics. Given that Abhisit had specifically referred to Chiranuch's case on several different occasions, saying it was "troubling," it also raises questions about his own authority within the government. Pressure has been growing on authorities to crack down on any dissent given the serious illness of the king, the world's longest-serving monarch and a linchpin for Thai society.

"There is growing concern about the royal succession in Bangkok now that Thaksin and his republican supporters are willing to fight with the Bangkok elites in the open since his assets were seized," said a Bangkok source with access to the palace. "It is apparent because the king is very ill and the Red Shirts show no signs of giving up."

After a brief appearance for his birthday, the king quietly returned to the hospital, where he has been virtually nonstop since falling ill in September last year. "We in Thailand know he might be counting his days," the source said.

Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince, is regarded as erratic and virtually incapable of ruling. However, his sister, the crown princess Maha Chakri Sirindorn, the next possible heir and a favorite of many Thais, reportedly has told her servants she wants nothing to do with the throne, perhaps because she is worried over her personal safety, the source added, asking that his name not be used for fear of also being charged with lèse-majesté, or insulting the monarchy.

The queen has recently become more and more involved with politics. One theory making the rounds in Bangkok is that if the king dies, she would act as regent, bypassing Vajiralongkorn for the crown prince's fifth son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who is now less than five years old. The queen has come under considerable subterranean criticism for her involvement in politics, particularly with the royalist Yellow Shirts, however.

Against that troubled background, attacks on the press or any other critics have increased. As many as 50,000 websites have been blocked in Thailand, including Asia Sentinel, which has been blocked intermittently for more than a month although some Thai readers apparently have been able to access it through different Internet providers.

Meanwhile the arrests continue. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "Former journalist and UDD activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was convicted in August on three counts of Lèse-Majesté and sentenced to 18 years in prison for anti-royal comments made during a public protest in 2007. Suwicha Thakor, an oil rig engineer, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act for sending pictures over the Internet that pilloried King Bhumibol Adulyadej and heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Suwicha's sentence was commuted to 10 years after he pleaded guilty."

Also, a police complaint has been filed by a private citizen against the entire board of directors of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand for selling DVD copies of a 2007 speech by a Thaksin supporter that touched on the monarchy. The police at this point have taken no action against the FCCT. The speaker, Jakropob Penkair, has since fled Thailand, as has Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former sociology professor and critic of the monarchy.

Chiranuch, the operator of Prachatai, faces her first hearing in the Criminal Court in Bangkok on May 31. She was first arrested last March under the computer offense law, which was first used against an earlier blogger who was later given 20 years in jail. Six more people have been arrested since, although prosecutors have yet to file charges against any of them.

Changes have been made to this story to eliminate factual errors: Eds.