Thailand Tightens the Lese-majeste Screws

On 8 May 2012, Amphon Tangnoppakul, known affectionately in Thailand as "Akong", or "grandpa", died of complications from terminal cancer while in prison. Akong was charged with lese-majeste, a crime he denied, regarding four text messages he was alleged to have sent, which were deemed insulting to the King and Queen of Thailand. These text messages were allegedly sent to a secretary of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The increasing number of lese-majeste cases in the past years has dangerously worsened Thailand' human rights situation. The case of Akong, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, reiterated the misuse of the law. Akong was found guilty under the lese-majeste law and computer crime laws. While this incident angered many Thais, it was celebrated by the royalists. When he died last year, the celebration was repeated. One Thai actress stressed: "He deserved to die for the crime he committed (against the King)".

In many ways, the Akong case is no different from many others, as reflected in the fate of another victim, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai activist and magazine editor who early this year was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for lese-majeste against King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

So far, there are no signs that the royalists are willing to negotiate with democracy. To counter growing critical views of the monarchy, powerful royalists have exploited the lese-majeste law as a direct weapon. Lese-majeste, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent and Regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Charges against Thais are usually grave and the investigation and prosecution process is by nature opaque.

With King Bhumibol's deteriorating health, the royalists have launched an ever more aggressive campaign against critics of the monarchy. But they can do so now under King Bhumibol mainly because of the love and respect the Thais have had for him. It will be a totally different story when the new reign begins, when the new monarch will be lacking in moral authority, and that is when the application of lese-majeste law could be even more absurd and would be misused.

Prosecution has become more pervasive, virtually against anyone. In retrospect, cases of lese-majeste have multiplied since the last coup. In 2005, 33 charges came before the Court of First Instance, which later handed down 18 decisions in these cases. By 2007, the number of charges increased almost fourfold to 126. This number jumped to 164 in 2009, and then tripled to 478 cases in 2010.

The most dramatic increases occurred under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which adopted a royalist line strongly backed by the military. Under the current Yingluck Shinawatra government, the arrests continue. Yingluck has appeared to shift her strategy by maintaining the political status quo on the lese-majeste issue for the sake of her government's survival.

Aside from the case of Akong, the number of recent high-profile cases underscores the misuse of lese-majeste law in the name of defending the monarchy and the display of loyalty of the government for the royal institution. Joe Gordon, or Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a Thailand-born naturalized American, was jailed for two-and-a-half years in Thailand after posting online excerpts from a banned book, "The King Never Smiles" authored by Paul Handley, while living in the United States.

The US government criticized the lese-majeste law, but was taken aback by the response of Thai royalists, who called for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador to Bangkok. Eventually, Gordon received a royal pardon and was set free last year.

In another case, Abhinya Sawatvarakorn, nicknamed Kantoop, or "Joss Stick", now a university student, was accused of committing lese-majeste over comments she made on Facebook in April 2009 while she was still in high school. She has already undergone a catalog of social punishments. For example, she was reportedly refused admission into Silpakorn University, where some professors painted her as an anti-monarchist. She also had a shoe thrown at her by a student at Thammasat University, where she currently studies, and has been forced to change her name to avoid being recognized — and possibly attacked.

At the same time as the lese-majeste law has been used arbitrarily, the glorification of King Bhumibol has been religiously carried out by royalists as a way of legitimizing the overpowering royal influence on politics and demoralizing the anti-monarchy elements. Initially it was speculated that Yingluck's arrival in power in July 2011 following the election victory of her party, Pheu Thai, could aggravate the crisis because of the conflict between her brother and his enemies.

But some observers have suspected that reconciliation between the government and the palace could have been underway. This will likely eclipse the public call for the amendment of the lese-majeste law for the sake of freedom of expression and the protection of basic human rights.

A series of campaigns is in progress in Thailand, in calling for the reform, or even abolition, of the anachronistic law. The reform of the law could possibly be done in a larger context of amending the current 2007 constitution. This would not be an easy task. Scholars, both Thai and foreign, have joined force in raising this issue, but it is getting more precarious as Thailand is heading toward an uncertain royal transition.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.)