Lèse-majesté in Thailand
Lèse-majesté (a French term meaning "to do wrong to majesty") in Thailand is a crime according to Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. It is illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, heir-presumptive, or regent. Modern Thai lèse-majesté law has been on the statute books since 1908. Thailand is the only constitutional monarchy to have strengthened its lèse-majesté law since World War II. With penalties ranging from three to fifteen years imprisonment for each count, it has been described as the "world's harshest lèse majesté law" and "possibly the strictest criminal-defamation law anywhere"; its enforcement "has been in the interest of the palace".:134
The law has criminalised acts of insult since 1957. There is substantial room for interpretation, which causes controversy. Broad interpretation of the law reflects the inviolable status of the king, resembling feudal or absolute monarchs. Thailand's Supreme Court decided the law also applies to prior monarchs. Criticism of any privy council member has raised the question whether lèse-majesté applies by association. Even attempting to commit lèse-majesté, making sarcastic comments about the King's pet, and failure to rebuke an offense have been prosecuted as lèse-majesté.
Anyone can file a lèse-majesté complaint, and the police formally investigate all of them. Details of the charges are rarely made public. A Section 112 defendant meets with official obstruction throughout the case. There are months-long pretrial detentions, and courts routinely deny bail to those charged. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that the pretrial detention of an alleged lèse-majesté offender violated international human rights law. The courts seem not to recognise the principle of granting defendants the benefit of the doubt. Judges have said accusers did not have to prove the factuality of the alleged lèse-majesté material but only claim it is defamatory. Pleading guilty then asking for a royal pardon is seen as the quickest route to freedom for any accused.
Since a 1976 coup, coup makers have regularly cited a surge of alleged lèse-majesté charges as a reason for overthrowing elected governments. This was cited as one of the major reasons for the 2006 coup and that of 2014. In 2006 and 2007, there were notable changes in the trend. Those targeted by lèse-majesté complaints included more average citizens who were given longer jail sentences. Human rights groups condemned its use as a political weapon and a means to restrict freedom. The 2014 junta government granted authority to army courts to prosecute lèse-majesté, which has usually resulted in secret trials and harsh sentences. Prior to the law's revival in 2020, for three years the Thai government often invoked other laws, such as the Computer Crimes Act and sedition laws, to deal with perceived damages and insults to the monarchy. The longest recorded sentence was in 2021: 87 years imprisonment, reduced to 43 years because the defendant pleaded guilty.
Origin and early developments
In the feudal era, monarchs, royal officials, royal symbols, and wrongdoings in the palace were protected from many kinds of "violation".:23–24 Crimes against royal symbols greatly affected the social structure of the sakdina era.:24–5[clarification needed]
The Siamese criminal code of 1908 separated the King and the state. It penalised persons who displayed malice or defamed the King, the Queen Consort, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent. Anyone doing so was subject to imprisonment not exceeding seven years or fines of not more than 5,000 baht, or both.:3 Other sections provided protection from displays of malice or defamation of "the princes or princesses from whichever reign":3 or from those who "create disloyalty" or "insult the king", and "cause the people to transgress the royal laws".:3–4
As the print media was becoming widespread, the criminal code was strengthened in 1928 to penalise crimes of "advocates or teachers of any political or economic doctrine or system, intended or calculated to bring into hatred or contempt the Sovereign".:4
Lèse-majesté law did not change significantly after the 1932 Siamese Revolution, because the Khana Ratsadon compromised and added the inviolable status of the king in the Constitution continues to the present day.:28 However, the law included an exclusion clause for "an expression of good faith" or "a critical and unbiased comment on governmental or administrative acts".:4 During that time, discussion about the monarchy was still free. This allowed discussion over whether Thailand be a constitutional monarchy in 1949, and a 1956 lecture by a legal scholar which said the king should not express an opinion on economic, political and social problems with no countersign.:30[clarification needed]
1957 changes: criminalisation of insult
"... it might not be true, and even if it were true, [it] should not be publicized as there is no legislation that allows it. And regarding the institution of the monarchy, it should be revered by the people, in an inviolable status, always above any criticism.":38–9 — A Court decision in 1986, ruling that gossip could be
lèse-majesté even if it were true.
On 1 January 1957, the criminal code of 1956 came into force.:18 Since then, lèse-majesté forbade insult, in addition to the existing crimes of threats or defamation. The change broadly expanded the applicability of the law.:6 Lèse-majesté was changed from an offense against the monarchy to an offense against national security,:133 removing the right to express opinions which might be insulting to the monarchy if said within the spirit of the constitution.:6
Thai Cold War dictator Sarit Thanarat, claimed national security, and used lèse-majesté charges to suppress political opponents, leading to some executions. He also handed over lèse-majesté cases to courts-martial.
Court decisions shortly after the change still took context into consideration. In December 1957, a case against a politician was dismissed because a political campaign was underway.:32–3
The penalty for lèse-majesté used today was toughened from a maximum of seven years' imprisonment to three to fifteen years per count by order of the military junta of 1976. Except for World War II Empire of Japan, Thailand is the only constitutional monarchy that strengthened lèse-majesté in the 20th century.:115–116
Between 1977 and 1986 when the royal power base grew among the urban middle class, the "kinship" and "bond" relationship was created between the people and the king as well as its modern "inviolable" status.:37–8 Since then, court decisions and legal scholars' comments have interpreted lèse-majesté law to mean the king could not be criticised in any way.:38–9
Examples of cases of insult include a politician, in 1988, who served four years in prison for suggesting that life would have been easier had he been born in the palace,:134 and a man in 1976 who was arrested on charges of lèse-majesté for using a royal village scout scarf to wipe a table.:134 Acts deemed insulting to the royal image include placing photographs of anybody on a website above those of the king. In March 2007, Oliver Jufer, a Swiss man, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for daubing black paint on portraits of King Bhumibol while drunk in Chiang Mai, although he received a royal pardon the following month.
Political crisis: A political weapon and ailing King
|Year||No. of case|
|2017 (9 mo.)||45|
Between 1990 and 2005, there was an average of five new lèse-majesté cases per year. Since then, however, there have been at least 400 cases—an estimated 1,500 percent increase. Prior to the 2006 coup, targets of lèse-majesté were mostly politicians, high-ranking bureaucrats and extra-constitutional figures, but after 2007, common people were charged.:124 The law was interpreted to cover past monarchs and symbols associated with the monarch. No one had been sentenced to more than ten years in jail before 2007.:40–1 Observers attributed the increasing number of lèse-majesté cases to King Bhumibol's public invitation of criticism in 2005, increased polarization following the 2006 military coup, and to speculation over his declining health in the period before his death in 2016.
In 2005, cases registered in the Attorney General's office rose sharply from 12 new cases in 2000–2004 to 17.:17 Thai Rak Thai and Democrat Party as well as opposition movement People's Alliance for Democracy traded lèse-majesté accusations.:124 Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's alleged lèse-majesté was one of the stated reasons for the Thai military's 2006 coup. After the coup, dozens of radio stations were shut down because of alleged lèse-majesté.
Academics have been investigated, imprisoned, and forced into exile over accusations of lèse-majesté. Prominent historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul was arrested for proposing an eight-point plan to reform of the monarchy. Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn went into exile in 2007 after his book, A Coup for the Rich, questioned Bhumibol's role in the 2006 coup. In March 2011, Worachet Pakeerat, a law lecturer, banded together with same-minded lecturers and formed the Nitirat Group, aiming to amend the lèse-majesté law. He proposed reducing the maximum jail term to three years, a circumstance for pardoning, and that only the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary could file a complaint. His actions angered many people. In February 2012, he was assaulted in broad daylight in Bangkok.
During the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the number of arrests and convictions for lèse-majesté offences declined significantly. However, she said she would not seek to reform the law. There were 478 cases in 2010.
In May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta, granted authority to a military tribunal to prosecute lèse-majesté in Thailand. Military courts routinely imposed harsher sentences than civilian courts would. In August 2015, the Bangkok Military Court sentenced Pongsak Sriboonpeng to 60 years in prison for his six Facebook postings (later reduced to 30 years, when he pleaded guilty). This was Thailand's longest recorded sentence for lèse-majesté. The courts were dubbed "kangaroo courts." The military government has never successfully extradited someone living abroad.
iLaw, a Thai non-profit organisation, reported that the junta hold persons in custody for seven days without charges. Secret trials were held. Officials seized personal communication devices to search for incriminating evidence.
In 2015, Prachatai published an infographic showing that bathroom graffiti, a hand gesture, a hearsay report of a taxi conversation, and not standing during the playing of the royal anthem, among other things, could be punished as acts of lèse-majesté. A nurse wearing black on Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday was charged with lèse-majesté.
The last formal attempt to amend the law occurred in May 2012 when more than 10,000 people signed a petition to parliament, but Speaker of the House of Representatives, Somsak Kiatsuranont, dismissed it citing that amendment of the law concerning the monarchy was not a constitutional right.
In December 2016, Jatupat "Pai" Boonpattararaksa, a rights group member, was accused of lèse-majesté for sharing a BBC Thai biography of Thailand's new king, Vajiralongkorn. He was the only person to be arrested even though more than 2,600 people also shared the story, as well as the publisher BBC Thai, which did not face prosecution. In May 2017, the military junta stated that merely viewing material is considered lèse-majesté and is a violation of the law. As of November 2018, at least 127 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since the latest coup.
In 2017, there was a case of a 14-year-old who was accused of lèse-majesté for burning down a royal decoration arch in Khon Kaen. This was the first prosecution of a minor. A lawyer who did not accept legal proceeding claiming that the court act in the name of the King who had conflict of interest in such cases, thus impartial and unjust. There were several low-profile instances where the authorities did not prosecute, but used other intimidation methods instead, such as holding the individual in military custody for seven days, checking for communication devices, asking them to unfollow a Facebook page, or asking them to make a video expressing loyalty to the monarch.
The Attorney General's directive, dated 21 February 2018, issued a new guideline for prosecution. Now only the Attorney General can file a lèse-majesté case. And in June 2018, there was a new regulation which allowed public persecutors to decide against prosecuting cases that did not serve the public interest. Unprecedented moves were seen, such as dismissing lèse-majesté cases even though the defendants pleaded guilty, and those charged had received bail in certain cases. However, the authorities now favour invoking other laws instead, such as the Computer Crime Act and the sedition law. On 15 June 2020, Thai prime minister and former 2014 Thai coup d'état leader Prayut Chan-o-cha confirmed this stance, stating that King Vajiralongkorn had called for no further use of Section 112.
After the forced disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an alleged lèse-majesté offender, in June 2020, #ยกเลิก112 (cancel 112) trended first on Twitter in Thailand with more than 500,000 retweets, as netizen believed his accusations were behind his abduction. In August, protests against the government included calls to reform the monarchy, including the abolition of Article 112.
During 2020 Thai protests, the authorities revived lèse-majesté law in response. In January 2021, a woman was sentenced to 43 years imprisonment for multiple charges of sharing sensitive audio clips online without commenting.
Social context and impact
King Rama VI believed that insults to the king are also insults to his power source—the people. The king felt every subject is also insulted.:26–7
David Streckfuss, a scholar on Thai human rights and politics, commented that lèse-majesté is one factor defining neo-absolutism in Thailand.:110 Lèse-majesté is used in less democratic monarchies to protect the system of power.:113 Thai mainstream media has supported the use of the law and avoid covering it.:117 The media do not discuss the role of the monarchy in politics, thus creating a distorted view of the political scene.:117 Lèse-majesté and communism were once the definition of the ultimate traitor. With the decline of communism, however, lèse-majesté began to define new kinds of traitors.:127
Michael Kelly Connors, a professor in social science at the University of Nottingham, wrote the king had a dual position—an agent of political and economic interests and the soul of the nation showing the glaring disparity between social classes, and thus required controlled imagery. The stage-managed role of the monarch, the compulsory respect shown to the institution, and the pressure of social conformity left many people with a taste of bitterness which few felt confident to express. Thai elites feared the Thai monarchy would be subjected to mockery once it was open to scrutiny, just like the British monarchy.:133–4
Streckfuss and Preechasilpakul wrote that lèse-majesté remains the most potent political charge in Thailand and the number of charges increased in times of political upheaval.:2 Human rights groups say the lèse-majesté laws have been used as a political weapon to stifle free speech. Political scientist Giles Ungpakorn noted that "the lèse-majesté laws are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. In the past, the laws have been used to protect governments and to shield military coups from lawful criticism. This whole [royal] image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace." However, Connors argued that while some have used it as a political weapon, it has always been in the interests of the palace.:134
Contemporary scope of the law
|Country||Max. jail term (years)|
Section 112 of Thai Criminal Code currently reads as follows:
"Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years."
As lèse-majesté is one of the offences relating to the security of the kingdom, according to Section 7 of the Thai Criminal Code. Even alleged offences committed outside the kingdom can be punished within Thailand. Thai courts have demonstrated they will prosecute and jail even non-Thai citizens for offences committed outside of the kingdom as proven in the case against American citizen Joe Gordon who police arrested in May 2011 when he visited Thailand for medical treatment. The court later sentenced him to five years in jail.
David Streckfuss opined that lèse majesté law is not necessarily controversial, even some Western democratic countries seem to have severe jail punishment, if rarely used.:119
In 2007, a controversy arose over whether criticism of members of King Bhumibol's privy council also constituted criticism of Bhumibol. Police Special Branch Commander Lt Gen Theeradech Rodpho-thong, who refused to file charges of lèse-majesté against activists who launched a petition to oust Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, was demoted within days of the incident by Police Commander Seripisut Temiyavet.
In 2013, a man was found guilty of "preparing and attempting" to commit an act of lèse-majesté. He had images and captions deemed lèse-majesté in his electronic device—which, his accusers said, potentially could have been spread online. He was found guilty despite the law providing that mere preparation of the act is not a legal offence.
In 2016, a singer and activist, in addition to his prison sentence for defaming the monarchy, was ordered to write a song promoting "national reconciliation" after completing his sentence. The court order to write a song is outside the scope of the punishments in the Criminal Code.
In 2013, a person filed lèse-majesté charges against his own brother, showing how easily the lèse-majesté law can be misused, and that the law has now become a potential weapon in family feuds. Often the police, courts, and prosecutors are afraid they will be accused of disloyalty to the monarch if they fail to prosecute allegations of lèse-majesté. Additionally, there are cyberbullying cases where fake accounts were created and lèse-majesté material was posted to create misunderstanding that the person actually committed a crime.
Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act BE 2550 (2007), which broadly bars the circulation through computer systems of information and material deemed detrimental to national security, has also been used to prosecute cases of lèse-majesté.
There have been occasions when lèse-majesté cases have been transferred to court-martial, most recently during the National Council for Peace and Order regime after the 2014 coup. There are differences between court-martial decisions compared to civilian court ones, including protection of any previous monarchs. Alleged counts are considered separately, making the punishment twice as harsh; the right to bail is restricted in wartime.
Detainees are seen barefoot and shackled at the ankles when brought to court. The courts sometimes use videoconferencing systems for court proceedings, so that defendants do not have to be physically present in the court. Two detainees have died in military custody. One hanged himself, and the other died of a blood infection, according to his autopsy.
Judges have also said the accuser did not necessarily have to prove the information was factual claiming, "because if it is true, it is more defamatory, and if it isn't true, then it's super-defamatory". Asked why the Criminal Court did not grant the benefit of the doubt to the defendant in the case of Ampon Tangnoppakul, Court of Justice spokesperson Sitthisak Wanachaikit replied:
When the public prosecutor who institutes the proceedings can exercise his burden of proof to the extent of bringing to light the evil intent of the defendant...the defendant needs to be punished according to the gravity of the case.
Professor Peter Leyland of SOAS, University of London and Professor Emeritus of London Metropolitan University, explained:
It [the lese majeste offence] can be committed entirely without criminal intent. There is no need for the prosecuting authorities to bring any evidence to bear relating to foresight on the part of the defendant with regard to the fact of the statement or conduct. [...] The police, prosecuting authorities and judges not only act in the name of the King, but there is an expectation that their loyalty to the Crown will be reflected in an outcome that confirms the dignity of the King at the expense of the accused.:130
Court proceedings are lengthy, and defendants often pleading guilty as the quickest route to freedom. Court decisions are often overturned in the higher courts, thus lengthening the proceedings. Civilian courts often handed sentences of five years imprisonment per count, while military courts often handed sentences of 10 years per count.
The Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes maintains a "war room" to monitor for pages which disparage the monarchy. A web crawler is used to search the internet. When an offending image or language is found, the office obtains a court order blocking the site. On 28 October 2008, The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) announced plans to spend about 100–500 million baht to build a gateway to block websites with contents defaming the royal institution.
In 2008, more than 4,800 webpages deemed insulting to Thailand's royal family were blocked. In December 2010, nearly 60,000 websites had been banned for alleged insults against Bhumibol. In 2011, the number increased to 70,000.
The website of Same Sky Books, publishers of Same Sky magazine, was shut down after comments on its bulletin board questioned mainstream media's claims that the entire country was in mourning over the death of Princess Galyani Vadhana.
In December 2015, the court verdict against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of the news website Prachatai, was upheld in the highest court: "an eight-month suspended jail sentence and a 20,000 baht fine". Previously, she had been jailed without bail for nearly a year for not removing—in 2008—an allegedly insulting comment from an article fast enough. Although the comments did not directly mention Bhumibol or members of his family, the court found that Chiranuch displayed an intent to insult. Arrested in September 2010, she could face up to 50 years' imprisonment if found guilty.
In 2016, Facebook blocked users in Thailand from accessing a page satirising Thailand's royal family, citing the lèse-majesté law. Around the same time, there was speculation that the junta was able to obtain private chat logs of Facebook users.
In 2019, the Facebook page "Royalist Marketplace" was launched as a forum by academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun to discuss and criticise the Thai monarchy freely. The Thai authorities shut down access in Thailand to the Facebook page, which has accumulated around one million users. Facebook may be appealing, while Chachavalpongpun is facing a charge of cybercrime. He has since launched a replacement Facebook page.
Abuse of psychiatry
On July 9, 2020, Tiwagorn Withiton, a Facebook user who went viral after posting a picture of himself wearing a t-shirt printed with the message, "I lost faith in the monarchy" was forcibly detained by police officers and admitted to Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital in Khon Kaen. Tiwaporn is quoted as saying, "I well understand that it is political to have to make people think I'm insane. I won't hold it against the officials if there is a diagnosis that I'm insane, because I take it that they have to follow orders." He was discharged about two weeks later.
Bowarnsak Suwanno, Ta hai legal scholar, argued that countries limited free speech according to their cultural-legal circumstances.:129 A Thai official said that the lèse-majesté law is similar to a libel law for commoners. Some abuse their rights by spreading hate speech or distorted information to incite hatred towards the monarchical institution. Those who are accused of lèse-majesté have the right to a fair trial, and the opportunity to contest the charges and assistance from a lawyer, as well as the right to appeal.[b]
The Rubbish Collection Organization, a fascist ultra-royalist organization which was founded during the 2013–2014 Thai political crisis, supports persecution for lèse-majesté, and launched an ongoing online campaign of mobbing and doxxing victims, together with other methods of intimidation.
In May 2016, a justice minister remarked on "concerns raised by United Nations Security Council member countries during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva" on 11 May 2016: "that foreign countries would not understand why Thailand needs the lèse-majesté law because they are not "civilised" nations with cultural refinement like ours".
A judge in a 2016 lèse-majesté case, when a man was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison said he would have given him a longer sentence, but the court's deputy president advised him on giving a shorter term.
The lèse-majesté law is described as "draconian". Amnesty International considers anyone jailed for insulting Bhumibol to be a political prisoner; if they had a peaceful expression and intent, a prisoner of conscience.
Article 112 is typically deployed with politically expedient timing, rather than at the time of the supposed offense. Jakrapob Penkair, a former minister to the Office of the Prime Minister, commented: "It's not about your action; it's about the timing. They wait until the moment when you seem most vulnerable."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, commenting on the detention of a Thai national who posted a link to a Thai language BBC profile of Thailand's new king said, "Public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, may be subject to criticism, and the fact that some forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify restrictions or penalties." Kaye went on to say that such laws, "have no place in a democratic country" and called for Thailand to repeal them.
Activists against the law or those who seek to reform it include: Mainueng Kor Kunatee (a poet who was assassinated in 2014); Somsak Jeamteerasakul; Giles Ji Ungpakorn; Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former diplomat, and an associate professor at the Kyoto University and a leader of a campaign to abolish Article 112 of the Thai criminal code; and The Nitirat group—an association of law lecturers who campaign for constitutional reform and a change of Thailand's lèse-majesté law–including Worachet Pakeerut, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, and Sawatree Suksri.
Not The Nation, an anonymous website that satirises a Thai newspaper, The Nation, satirised the media and the public response to the case of Thai American Joe Gordon in contrast to that paid to the drug-related case of Australian Schapelle Corby and to the pardoning of Greek-Cypriot-Australian Harry Nicolaides. NTN later satirised plea bargaining in the "Uncle SMS" case. In December 2013, NTN circumvented the chilling effect of LMIT on discussion of succession with a discussion of the abdication of royal dog Thong Daeng.
In July 2014, British comedian John Oliver described Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as a "buffoon" and showed the leaked video of Vajiralongkorn and his topless wife celebrating the birthday of the prince's poodle, Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo, in a satirical piece about monarchy in general on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The Thai military government described Oliver as "undermining the royal institution", to which Oliver responded by saying: "It seems my Thailand vacation is going to have to be postponed very much indefinitely. If I can bring down your monarchy, you have—at best—a wobbly monarchy."
The Charoen Pokphand (CP) group is alleged to have supported Section 112 via a CP Freshmart marketing discount campaign that ran from February 12-15, 2021 titled "LOVE112" that offered a 112 baht discount for online purchases worth at least 666 baht. According to Khaosod English (KE) News Chief Teeranai Charuvastra, CP notified the news agency's editor to delete its February 16, 2021 news item covering the campaign because it was a sensitive issue and the editor agreed to have it removed. Prachatai news reported this incident on February 19, 2021.
- List of prosecuted lèse majesté cases in Thailand
- Censorship in Thailand
- Cyber Scouts (Thailand)
- Human rights in Thailand
- Red Gaurs
- Rubbish Collection Organization
- Social Sanction (Thailand)
- It reads: "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."
- These proceedings are lengthy, and the defendant rarely receives bail (see Legal proceedings section above).
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Not The Nation is for entertainment purposes only. Redistribution of Not The Nation content with attribution is permitted. Some photos and images used on Not The Nation are taken from the Internet. If one of them is yours, we apologize and are grateful. The author(s) of Not The Nation choose(s) to remain anonymous.
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EMBASSY STATEMENT ON U.S. CITIZEN JOE GORDON
The United States is disappointed by the prosecutor's decision to file lese majeste charges against U.S. citizen Joe Gordon. We have discussed Mr. Gordon's case extensively with Thai authorities, stressing at every possible opportunity his rights as an American citizen. We urge the Thai authorities to ensure freedom of expression is respected and that Mr. Gordon, a U.S. citizen, receives fair treatment.
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