Thai Lese-Majeste Claims Another Victim

With national elections scheduled in less than two months, there appears no letup in the Thai army’s crackdown on freedom of expression through use of the country’s laws against insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej and other members of the royal family.

The latest victim of the country’s increasingly tightened laws on freedom of expression appears to be Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a Thammasat University professor who was summoned to a Bangkok police station Wednesday to hear lèse-majesté charges filed against him, apparently at the direction of Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The summons against Somsak, a student leader during the 1976 massacre of students in Bangkok during a military coup, who was jailed as a political prisoner for two years at that time, had been expected since early April. There is little evidence that Somsak had actually criticized the royal family. However, Prayuth in early April called Somsak a "mentally ill academic" who is "intent on overthrowing the institutions of the monarchy."

Somsak has denied the charges, saying his views are legitimate political discourse and that he has never advocated overthrowing the monarchy. "I do not conceal my view concerning the need to transform and adapt the monarchy according to the principles of democratic governance, the rule of law, and the advances of the modern world," he wrote in the newspaper Prachatai on April 24. "The law permits people to express their views or make recommendations concerning the necessity of transforming and adapting the monarchy. Such acts are not illegal."

Prayuth is said to be the driving force behind a military that appears increasingly concerned that the Pheu Thai Party, considered a surrogate for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, may win enough votes to take power in the elections expected in early July. Despite the military fears, some sources in Bangkok told Asia Sentinel that it appears that the Democrat Party, headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, might eke out a win and, with the help of several minor parties, form a relatively viable ruling coalition.

The military’s continuing fomenting of trouble on the Cambodia-Thailand border, the observers say, is a part of the strategy to maintain a government backed by the military. That is said to be based on a supposition that Thailand’s voters will always opt for a strong military. Abhisit, although considered by many to be a conciliator, appears unable to to keep the military at bay. The political situation in Thailand is inviting unflattering comparisons to Burma, where a parliament elected last November through a rigged election is considered nothing more than a fig leaf to cover continuing military dominance.

The NGO Freedom House last week said that Thailand had "declined from Partly Free to Not Free" due to the use of restrictive legislation such as the Computer Crimes Act and the continued increase in the investigation and prosecution of lèse-majesté cases. The government and the military, according to the Freedom House report, have greatly expanded their efforts to rein in the electronic media, from satellite television to community radio and internet-based platforms in general. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology reported blocking 2,200 websites between April and June last year as protest by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts – grew in magnitude. The Thai Netizens Network cites other sources in saying that the number of blocked websites could be as high as 10,000.

Pokpong Lawansiri, a World Bank scholar at the department of political science at the University College London and former staff member of a Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, who has become a persistent blogger out of reach of the military said Somsak had been harassed by unknown persons who came by his house on motorcycles, and that he had received other warnings, a fact Somsak has confirmed in print. .

Pokpong distributed a letter signed by 51 academics across the world saying that scholars of Thai studies "have watched with deepening apprehension as the space for the free exchange of ideas has dwindled in Thailand since the 19 September 2006 coup. This constriction of thought and speech has intensified since the violence of April-May 2010, with the notable examples of the detention of Dr. Suthachai Yimprasert, assistant professor of history at Chulalongkorn University, by the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation in April 2010, the charges filed against Mr. Giles Ji Ungpakorn for the alleged crime of lèse-majesté, and the ongoing case against Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Prachatai webmaster."

The intimidation of Suthachai, Ungphakorn, Chiranuch, and now Somsak, "as well as countless ordinary citizens, is symptomatic of a broader set of practices which gravely threaten the exercise of rights and the future of democracy in Thailand," the letter said. "What is now clear is that dissent is not going to disappear from the Thai polity, no matter what repressive measures the state chooses to take. Those in power must realize that discussion and criticism – not blind loyalty – are necessary in a functioning democracy."