Testing Free Speech in Thailand
|Oct 11, 2007|
military-appointed legislature this week proposed — and then
abruptly withdrew — two bills that would have made it illegal to
criticize the king’s senior advisors.
Many saw the bills —
supported by military men, judges and, surprisingly, some journalists — as expressly designed to protect Privy Council President Prem
Tinsulanonda, a former army chief and prime minister that analysts
and critics alike suspect of masterminding the September 2006
overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup. Indeed, since it
is outright illegal for anyone to criticize the king, Prem has become
a proxy punching bag of sorts for those who believe that the palace
has been intervening too often in politics.
In the months preceding
the coup, the long-powerful Prem, dressed up in full military gear,
called on the army to be loyal to the king instead of the government.
The statement implied a rift between the two, and many analysts saw
it as a green light for a military takeover.
Prem has also met
frequently with the coupmakers and made a number of veiled political
statements in the past year, even
obliquely likening Thaksin to Adolf Hitler in remarks
posted on his website. These moves prompted pro-Thaksin groups to
tear into the senior statesman, even organizing rallies in front of
his house earlier this year that turned violent and led to several
The final straw that
prompted the 64 conservative legislators to propose the bills appears
to have been this YouTube
video that accuses Prem of seeking to usurp the
throne. The video infuriated government officials, but the current
lese majeste law only protects the king, queen, heir apparent and
regent, and so the video is not illegal.
Since nearly everything
about Thailand’s monarchy is shrouded in secrecy, it’s
impossible for most of the public to know what role Prem or the
palace played in the September 2006 coup. However, Prem’s
public statements and actions have undermined any claims that the
19-member Privy Council somehow sits loftily “above politics.”
Weng Tojirakarn, an
anti-coup leader who helped organize the protests in front of Prem's
house earlier this year, said: “We did not criticize Mr. Prem
as a privy councilor but we criticized him as a person who encouraged
the army to interfere with democracy. Anyone who tries to overthrow
the constitution illegally must be condemned according to the
Despite the reverence
for King Bhumibol Adulyadej across the country, Thailand has some of
the most severe lese majeste laws in the world. Offenders could face
up to 15 years in prison if convicted, although convictions are rare
and the King frequently pardons offenders.
One of the draft bills
sought to extend lese majeste to cover the Privy Council and royal
family members. The other would’ve prevented any media coverage
of lese majeste cases, which human rights activists feared might open
up the door for abuse since political opponents could be tossed in
jail at secret court hearings.
Wichitcholchai, the lawmaker who proposed the bills, told reporters
on Tuesday that he withdrew them after receiving a phone call from an
unnamed privy councilor who told him the privy councilors opposed the
bills. Media reports said the bill relating to the Privy Council and
media blackouts may be scrapped, but the one that covers royal family
members may go forward.
Although no explicit
reason was given for tabling the bills, they immediately came under
attack after being announced.
legislature is trying to push though every kind of law to undermine
democracy,” Weng said. “I think they withdrew the bills
because the majority of people would oppose them.”
Surichai Wun-Gaeo, a
member of parliament who is also a political science professor at
Chulalongkorn University, said: “As for Thai people’s
respect for the monarchy, we do not need anything additional. Some
people think we need to protect the Privy Council, but I think that’s
too far. There are more important issues for us to discuss.”
Due to the sensitivity
concerning anything related to Thailand’s monarchy, lese
majeste rarely comes up for debate. Thai courts already encourage
newspapers not to cover lese majeste cases, and more restrictions
would only serve to further stifle the free speech environment.
The king himself has
indicated that lese majeste laws put him in a tough spot. Anyone can
file a lese majeste case on the king’s behalf, which means that
often the charges are leveled in an attempt to discredit political
In his annual birthday
speech in 2005, he said: “About going to jail, if it is about
offending the King, the King is troubled in many ways…. I have
followed the way: do not send them to jail, or if they are in jail,
release them. If they are not in jail, I do not sue them because I
will be in trouble. People who offend the King and are punished are
not troubled. It’s the King who is in trouble. This is
A month after a Thai
court convicted Swiss national Oliver Jufer of defacing images of the
king with spray paint earlier this year, Bhumibol pardoned him.
Jufer, who pleaded guilty to five counts of lese majeste and faced 10
years in prison, was then deported.
The palace has also
tried to limit debate on lese majeste laws. One of the stated reasons
for the September 2006 coup was an accusation that Thaksin defamed
the king, but prosecutors dropped the case against Thaksin,
reportedly because Bhumibol didn’t want them to go to court.
The greater problem is
that “the wide interpretation of the law prevents legitimate
democratic debate on the role of the Monarchy in Thai society and
legitimate comments on the actions and speeches of members of the
royal family. Already the lid clamped on such discussions is building
up pressure in Thai society,” according to former senator Jon
Ungpakorn writing this week in the Bangkok Post.
expansive lese majeste laws would only raise the stakes for those who
oppose the current dispensation. This year the government showed it
was willing to ban websites like YouTube for a period of time to try
to block material deemed offensive to the monarchy. But further
efforts to limit free speech against privy councilors would lead the
country down a path that is more draconian, and may even inspire
fresh attacks on the royal institution.
As Jon wrote, “In
the long run [the lese majeste draft bills] could have the very
opposite effect to their stated intentions, causing both damage to
the monarchy and to the Thai justice system, not to mention the
effects on our democracy.”