Testing Free Speech in Thailand

Thailand’s

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

arrests.

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

constitution.”

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.

Pornpetch

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.

“The military-run

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

opponents.

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

strange.”

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.

Certainly more

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.”