Thai Critic Ungpakorn to be Charged with Lèse Majesté

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Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, has been ordered to appear tomorrow at a Bangkok police station to be charged under the country's stiff lèse majesté laws for insulting the country's monarchy.

Ungpakorn wrote a series of flame-throwing articles which appeared in Asia Sentinel, among other publications, charging that a royalist and anti-democratic alliance made up of what he called the "fascist" People's Alliance for Democracy, the military, the police, the judiciary, most middle-class academics and especially Queen Sirikit of perpetrating a royalist coup that kicked two democratically elected governments out of power.

As Thailand emerges gingerly from two years of political chaos that began with an September 2006 military coup against the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the government is increasingly using lèse majesté laws, the most restrictive known anywhere in the world, to stifle dissent. Since the 1970s, the laws have grown progressively stricter. Although the law is ostensibly designed to protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his family, it is increasingly being used to go after government critics, warranted or not. Charges have been filed against several individuals including the BBC correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head, for reporting on the political situation.

In a first email, Ungpakorn said he had not been told which articles or speeches had resulted in the charge against him, but later said he was being charged over his book, "A Coup for the Rich"and added that he is prepared to fight any charges "in order to defend academic freedom, freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand."

The book was withdrawn from sale by Chulalongkorn and Thammasat Universities. However, Ungpakorn said all 1,000 copies had sold out. He directed readers to his blog where the book is available in its entirety.

"The monarchy has been quoted and used by various political factions in Thailand to legitimize their actions," he wrote. "The most notable cases are the 19th September 2006 military coup and the illegal protests by the yellow-shirted PAD, which included shutting down the international airports. Lèse majesté charges in Thailand are notorious for being used by different political factions to attack their opponents. Many believe that this law is actually counter-productive to defending the monarchy. This is why it is very important that political scientists attempt to analyze the real role and nature of the Thai monarchy in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy."

The Committee to Protect Journalists has protested the use lèse majesté laws against the press, particularly against BBC reporter Head. But use of the laws goes well byond just journalism. In September, Australian novelist Harry Nicolaides, 41, was arrested at Bangkok's airport on charges that he had defamed the royal family in a 2005 novel when he tried to fly out of Bangkok to Australia. He said he was unaware of the arrest warrant.

He remains in jail despite four appeals.

The blogger Bangkok Pundit in November wrote that police are handling another 30 lese majeste cases including one against social critic Sulak Sivalak, who was arrested at his home in Khon Kaen in November for remarks he had made the previous December. Among the most prominent charged was former Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Jakrapob Penkair, who in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in August of 2007 criticized Thailand's patronage system and particularly criticized Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, a former prime minister and army general who is particularly close to the king.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Thailand 124th among 173 countries for restricting press freedom, recently expressing concern because 2,300 Internet websites were blocked in 2008, in most cases for lèse majesté. Ranongrak Suwanchawee, appointed information minister in the new Democrat government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, said on December 29 that blocking lèse-majesté websites would be her ministry's main task.

Ungpakorn comes from a family with an illustrious history of protest. His father, Puey Ungpakorn, joined the Free Thai movement in the United Kingdom and parachuted into Northern Thailand in 1944 but was captured by the Japanese. Later, he became governor of the post-war Bank of Thailand before returning to the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University. He was ultimately branded a communist and destroyer of unity by the political right. He resigned as rector at Thammasat in protest against the October 1976 massacre of students by rightists and was forced to flee the country.

Giles Ungpakorn urged opponents of the charges against him to write a letter of protest to the prime minister at Government House, Bangkok, Thailand Fax number +66(0)29727751, to write letters of protest to the ambassador of the Royal Thai embassy in opponents' own countries, and to ask that Amnesty International take up all lèse-majesté cases in Thailand.

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