Thailand's Royalists Strike Again

Any hope that the new Democrat Party government of Prime Minister Vejjajiva Abhisit, who is usually described as "urbane" and "Oxford-educated," would lighten up on the war against free expression ended Friday when two van-loads of police descended on the offices of Prachatai, a leading independent Thai-language website in Bankgkok, to arrest Chiranut Prempreecha, the woman who founded the website and serves as its coordinator.

Chiranut was later taken to Bangkok's Payatai Police Station for questioning, as red-shirted protesters thronged the area, and charged with carrying Internet content on Prachatai that threatens national security. The charges carry a maximum five-year jail sentence. The website has a reputation for carrying content that Thai newspapers shy away from publishing, including articles and messages critical of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the increasingly frail octogenarian monarch, and the hangers-on around him.

The police refused to comment to the press on the charges against Chiranut, saying they were "too sensitive." In the past, Thai officials have likened the use of lese majeste laws to national security measures such as those airlines employ to search passengers, although passenger searches normally do not have the potential for 15-year jail sentences from compliant courts.

Chiranut is the latest in a string of journalists and others who have been hauled in by police on allegations they had violated the country's strict laws against insulting Thailand's monarchy, which have been extended to include not just the royal family but officers of the court, the Buddhist hierarchy and probably the king's butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

As many as 3,000 websites have been shut down, supposedly for being critical of the country's royalty, including briefly the Asia Sentinel for stories critical of the use of the laws against dissent. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University who published articles in Asia Sentinel that were critical of the monarchy and the 2006 coup that the royalty backed, was arrested in January on lese majeste charges and ultimately fled the country. Ungpakorn, who holds dual British and Thai citizenship, said he did not believe he could get a fair trial in the country.

People have been arrested and charged for offences as slight as not standing up for the royal anthem in a movie theater. A would-be novelist and teacher who included one paragraph about the unpopular and unstable crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, in a three-year-old novel that sold fewer than 10 copies was jailed for three years. At least 11 people remain in jail or charged. Offenders of the lese majeste law face a potential of 15 years in jail.

According to the website Political Prisoners in Thailand (http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com), 50 international scholars and dignitaries have signed a letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, urging the government to reform the law and requesting that the government release those already convicted.

"They are charged for expressing their ideas. This should not be a crime," the letter states.

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Thailand has come through a long period of political upheaval that began with a September, 2006 coup backed by royalists that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Bhumibol is growing more infirm at the of 82, generating rumors that there is a growing power struggle for succession between forces aligned with Maha Vajiralongkorn and those of his more popular sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn. Queen Sirikit in particular has become deeply enmeshed in politics, intervening publicly on the side of forces that successfully overthrew two popularly elected governments.

The most recent mess ended when forces wearing yellow shirts aligned with the royalists ltook over the Government House and remained in it for months, finally managing to close both Bangkok airports and doing major damage to the country's economy, which was already drifting toward collapse as a result of the worsening global economic crash. Thailand, with major segments of its economy derived from tourism and exports, appears headed for real economic trouble despite the fact that a modicum of political stability was reinstated when a court threw the most recent Thaksin-backed party out of power and the corruption-plagued Democrat Party, headed by Abhisit, took over. Born in England of Thai physician parents and educated at Oxford, Abhisit was originally regarded with a certain amount of hope, but not for long. Remnants of the loyalists who brought Thaksin to power and served as the spear-carriers in attempts to reinstate his forces after they were removed, who wear red shirts, have continued to stage dwindling demonstrations against the government. They turned out in force at Chiranut's arrest.

Among others imprisoned since the government turned in force to the lese majeste laws, according to the website, are these:

  • Jakropob Penkair, a former spokesman for Thaksin, who was accused of insulting the royalty at a speech before the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand that seemed as much aimed at Prem Tinsulanonda, the king's privy counselor. The speech can be found here: http://thaipoliticalprisoners.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/jakrapob-at-the-fcct1.pdf

  • Chotisak Onsoong, 26, and a female friend who were charged last April after a member of the audience in a Bangkok theater complained the couple had not stood during the ritual playing of the royal anthem. The case apparently grew out of a heated argument when they were urged to stand up by the bystander. The couple later filed a complaint against the man, saying they had been verbally and physically abused. He retaliated by filing the lèse majesté complaint. Chotisak remains in jail while his case is being investigated.

  • Jitra Kotchadej, a union activist and friend of Chotisak's, who was fired in August from the clothing factory where she worked, according to the website, for appearing on a TV panel discussion wearing a T-shirt saying "Not standing is not a crime," a reference to Chotisak. It is not known if she has been charged by police.

  • Sulak Sivaraksa, a 75-year-old academic and long-time critic of the use of lèse majesté charges, was taken from his Bangkok home late one night in November 2008 and driven 450 km to a police station in the northeast province of Khon Kaen, where he was charged for insulting the monarchy for a December, 2007 lecture. It was the third time Sulak has been charged, the first in 1984 although the case was later withdrawn after an international outcry. In 1991, he was arrested after a speech in which he attacked the military coup that overthrew the government. Sulak fought the case until he won, in 1995. Other allegations were made against Sulak in 2006.

  • Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, known in Bangkok as "Da Torpedo," Darunee, a pro-Thaksin and self-proclaimed pro-democracy campaigner, was arrested in July after a 30-minute speech denouncing the 2006 coup and the monarchy. She is still behind bars, although it is not known if she has been formally charged, the website said.

  • Suwicha Thakor, arrested on Jan. 14 on suspicion of posting comments on the Internet that insulted the monarchy.

  • The final suspect is Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai media tycoon who played an integral role in bringing down the democratically elected People's Power Party government that came to power in the wake of the coup against Thaksin and who is regarded as being close to Queen Sirikit. He was a leader of the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy, which was responsible for the mob that closed Bangkok's two airports and ultimately caused the collapse of the government. Nobody expects Sondhi to actually be charged and many believe he has been rewarded. He was cited for repeating some of Da Torpedo's speech.