Thailand's Da Torpedo Sentenced

Daranee Chamchoengsilpakul, the Thai Red Shirt firebrand known as Da Torpedo, was sentenced today to 15 years in prison for violating Thailand’s lese-majeste laws, which mandate prison for anyone who defames or insults the monarchy.

Daranee received the prison sentence for speeches she made during 2008 Red Shirt rallies against the government. She is the latest to be sentenced. Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year-old grandfather was sent to prison for 20 years earlier this month on charges of sending SMS messages insulting Queen Sirikit.

The pace has been picking up. Ajahn Surapot Taweesak, a lecturer in Buddhist studies at Rajabhat Suan Dusit University in the southern resort city of Hua Hin, was taken into custody on Dec. 2. Joe Gordon, a U.S. citizen born in Thailand as Lerpong Wichaikhamma, was given two and a half years on Dec. 8.

Between January and October, according to statistics supplied by opposition members, the Court of First Instance has reviewed 122 lese-majeste cases, eight have been reviewed by the C0urt of Appeal, and three have gone to the Supreme Court. Although the exact numbers of those charged and convicted are not available, some estimates say that the caseload has tripled over five years, to 478 charges in 2010. Statistics obtained by The Associated Press, which came from Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General, show that 36 cases were sent for prosecution in 2010. That is a doubling of numbers since 2005 and up from just one in 2000.

The cases and their harsh sentences are seen as a litmus test of Thailand’s commitment to freedom of speech. As the king ages and talk of a succession to the much-less popular and influential Crown Prince grows, there appears to be a similarly-growing determination by Thai royalists to shut down any criticism of the “institution.” as the monarchy is sometimes called, in a country that often prefers euphemism to straight talk. The United States and the United Nations as well as human rights organizations have voiced concern over the use of the laws to stifle dissent.

It is becoming clear that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai government is making common cause with the conservative elites against whom they staged a bitter campaign that ended in July with a resounding victory at the polls.

Critics say the Red Shirts who carried a major part of the load in getting Pheu Thai into power have largely been ignored. Reform of the lese-majeste laws was a major campaign goal.

Pheu Thai’s Minister for Information Technology and Communication Anudit Nakorntup has taken up the role of censor formerly occupied by members of the Democrat Party headed by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Recently Facebook users were warned not to click “like” in response to posts deemed by the Military to be insulting to the monarchy.

Other lèse majesté prisoners awaiting trial include Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Surachai Darnwattananusorn have been refused bail. Recently the Red Shirt leader Arisaman Pondruangrong re-entered Thailand and gave himself up to police, thinking that he would be bailed under the government’s “reconciliation project”. He was promptly jailed and refused bail.