Thailand’s Political Prisoners

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk is a journalist in prison. He is a prisoner of conscience. He was convicted of publishing two articles in an anti-establishment magazine that made negative references to the crown. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and has been in prison since his initial arrest on April 30,2011. He has always been denied bail.

There are several political prisoners sentenced to jail under lèse majesté. The only way to get released is to admit guilt. Somyot has refused to admit guilt. He has done nothing wrong. He tells stories about the conditions in jail. The prisoners have to wear chains on both legs which weigh 5 kg. The prisoners have to clean the chains regularly otherwise they go rusty and people’s legs become infected. According to Somyot, standard practices in jail are mainly designed to reduce the humanity of prisoners. “If you are in jail you are treated like an animal”.

Another lèse majesté prisoner, anti-royalist activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, better known as Da Torpedo, has been in jail longer than Somyot. She has been denied proper medical treatment and has also been physically attacked in prison.

The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on democracy carried out by the military, royalist judges and bureaucrats, and all the political elites, including Thaksin Shinawatra and the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

Lèse majesté prisoners are tried in secret courts and denied bail. The royalist judges claim that the offense is “too serious” and “a threat to national security.” Thai dictatorships have long used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators or throw people into jail. Jail terms for lèse majesté are draconian. Meanwhile armed anti-democracy thugs and state killers enjoy freedom of action and impunity.

The lèse majesté law in Thailand is an authoritarian law which has been designed primarily to protect the interests of the un-elected elites, especially the military. It is used hand in hand with the computer crimes law and the contempt of court law to stifle full debate and accountability in society.

Lèse majesté and the computer crimes laws have resulted in many outspoken critics going to prison or leaving the country and they have also resulted in the systematic censorship of books and the internet. Government departments, both civilian and military, have been set up to spy on citizens who use the internet, and those involved with radio and television, with a view to prosecuting citizens under the lèse majesté law.

People have also been encouraged to spy on others and report them to the authorities. While the National Human Rights Commission and the NGOs remain silent on lèse majesté, the only systematic opposition comes from a small section of the pro-democracy movement.

The truly repressive nature of lèse majesté can be highlighted by the fact that some Thai citizens are too afraid to refuse to stand up at the cinema when the king’s anthem is played. It is an image that would not look out of place in Nazi Germany or North Korea.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai exile who faces prison if he returns to his home country.