Lèse majesté in Thailand

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Government official pays respect to the portrait of former King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand
For more details on Lèse majesté, see Lèse majesté.

Lèse majesté in Thailand, based on Thai Criminal Code section 112, making it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent, has been on the statute books since 1908. The punishment is three to fifteen years of imprisonment per count.[1] There is no legal definition, however, of what actions constitute a defamation, insult, or threat against the monarchy, and there is plenty of room for interpretation.

Former Supreme Court Justice Tanin Kraivixien interpreted the wording of the law as a blanket ban against criticism of royal development projects, the institution of royalty itself, the Chakri Dynasty or any previous Thai king.[2] There was a controversy whether criticism of members of Bhumibol's privy council also qualifies as lèse-majesté. The Supreme Court of Thailand decided in 2013 that the law also applies to any previous monarchs. Later that year, a man was found guilty of "preparing and attempting" to commit an act of lèse-majesté, even though the law states that the mere planning of such act is not an offence. In 2015, a man was sentenced for a "sarcastic" comment online about the King's dog, Tongdaeng.

Lèse-majesté complaints can be filed by any person against anyone else, and they must always be formally investigated.[3] Details of the charges are rarely made public. A section 112 defendant always meets with obstructions from the beginning to the end of a case, especially when asking for a provisional release.[4] There are months-long pretrial detentions, and those who are charged are routinely denied bail, remaining in prison for many months awaiting trial. In most cases, convictions result in harsh sentences. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined in August 2012 that the pretrial detention of an alleged lèse-majesté offender violated international human rights law.[5] The courts seem not to recognise the principle of granting the benefit of the doubt to defendants. Judges have said that accusers did not have to prove the factuality of the alleged lèse-majesté material, but only to claim it is defaming in any way. Pleading guilty is seen as a move to seek a royal pardon.

Coup makers, since the Thammasat University massacre and coup in 1976, have regularly cited a surge of alleged lèse-majesté as a prerequisite for overthrowing an elected government. The 2006 coup, when lèse-majesté was cited as one of the major reasons, marked a surge of the lèse-majesté cases.[6] After the 2014 Thai coup d'état, Thailand had the highest number of lèse-majesté prisoners in the nation's history.[6] The junta granted authority to army courts to prosecute lèse-majesté. In one case it sentenced a man to 60 years in prison (later reduced to 30 years after he pleaded guilty), the longest recorded sentence. Secret trials and harsh punishments have also been used.

Scope of the law[edit]

As lèse-majesté is listed as 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.

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."

The penalty for lèse-majesté in Thailand was toughened from a maximum of seven years imprisonment during the premiership of royalist Tanin Kraivixien. Also banned was criticism of any member of the royal family, royal development projects, the institution of royalty, the Chakri Dynasty, or any previous Thai king. These harsher provisions have been retained to the present day.[7]

In 2007, controversy arose over whether criticism of members of Bhumibol's privy council also constituted criticism of Bhumibol.[8] Police Special Branch Commander Lt Gen Theeradech Rodpho-thong refused to file charges of lèse-majesté against activists who launched a petition to oust Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, declaring that the law only applied to members of the royal family.[9] Two days later, he was demoted by Police Commander Seripisut Temiyavet.[10] During the Songkran 2009 unrest, Thaksin Shinawatra accused the privy council president of masterminding the 2006 military coup. Royalists chose to interpret this as an attack on Bhumibol himself.

In a Kafkaesque twist, even calls to reform lèse-majesté laws have themselves resulted in charges of lèse-majesté.[11] 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."[12]

In 2013, a man was found guilty of "preparing and attempting" to commit an act of lèse-majesté. He had images and captions deemed to defame or threaten the royal family in his electronic device—which, his accusers said, potentially could have been connected to the Internet and been spread online. But the police seized the material before it was posted. He was found guilty, despite the law providing that mere preparation of the act is not a legal offence.[13]

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.[14]

Legal proceedings[edit]

In 2013, a person filed lèse-majesté charges against his 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.[5]

Details of the charges are rarely made public for fear of compounding the offence by repeating the original words deemed to have been insulting.

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.[15]

In the case of Ampon Tangnoppakul, the Criminal Court found that:

"The prosecutor could not expressly prove that the defendant sent the messages as mentioned in the charge...but the grounds for his inability to introduce any eyewitnesses are the serious nature of the offence in question, to such an extent that a person intending to commit it would conduct the commission in absence of others...It needs to derive the guilt from the circumstantial evidence introduced by the prosecutor...And every circumstance evidence adduced by the prosecutor could firmly, proximately and reasonably indicate all circumstances giving rise to an absolute belief that during the periods of time aforementioned, the defendant sent the four messages as accused."[16]

As to why the court did not grant the benefit of the doubt to Ampon, 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."[17]

The courts sometimes use videoconferencing systems for court proceedings, so that defendants do not have to be physically present in the court. Judges have also said the accuser did not necessarily have to prove the information was factual "because if it is true, it is more defamatory, and if it isn't true, then it's super-defamatory."[18] Detainees are seen barefoot and shackled at the ankles when brought to court,[19] while two detainees have died in military custody. One hanged himself, and the other died of a blood infection, according to his autopsy.[20]

Pleading guilty to committing lèse-majesté is seen as a move to seek a royal pardon if a person is handed a lengthy prison term.[21] One commented that it was the king's generosity and sense of fair play that led him to grant pardons for lèse-majesté convictions.[22]

Recent developments[edit]

2005-2006 political crisis[edit]

Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and royalist activist Sondhi Limthongkul both filed charges of lèse majesté against each other during the 2005–2006 political crisis. Thaksin's alleged lèse-majesté was one of the stated reasons for the Thai military's 2006 coup.[7][23][24][25]

King invites criticism[edit]

During his birthday speech in 2005, King Bhumibol Adulyadej encouraged criticism of himself: "Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid of the criticism concerning what I do wrong, because then I know. If you say the king cannot be criticised, it means that the king is not human." He later added, "If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him, because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong....If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the King is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion. If I am not, that could be problematic... If we hold that the King cannot be criticised or violated, then the King ends up in a difficult situation."[26]

Post-2006 coup[edit]

Opponents of the lèse-majesté doctrine have often claimed that the law has been used to silence discussion about Bhumibol's role in politics, particularly after the 2006 coup. After the 2006 coup, there was an increasing number of claims, without real evidence, that Bhumibol or his advisers knew of the 2006 coup before it occurred. However, the king is conventionally regarded as being above politics.[citation needed] Dozens of radio stations have also been shut down due to alleged insults.[27]

Academics have been investigated, imprisoned, and forced into exile over accusations of lèse-majesté. In 2007 Boonsong Chaisingkananon of Silpakorn University was the subject of a police investigation for asking students in an exam to discuss whether the institution of the monarchy was necessary in principle for Thai society and if it could be reformed to be consistent with democracy. The university handed in students' answer sheets and the professor's marks.[28] Prominent historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul was arrested for proposing an eight-point plan on the reform of the monarchy. Somsak declared that he had never proposed to overthrow the monarchy and had never insulted Bhumibol personally.[29][30][31] Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn went into exile after his book, A Coup for the Rich, questioned Bhumibol's role in the 2006 coup.[32]

Observers attribute the increasing number of lèse-majesté cases in recent years to King Bhumibol's public invitation of criticism in 2005, increased polarization following the 2006 military coup, and to speculation over his declining health.[33]

During the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the number of arrests and convictions for lèse-majesté offences significantly declined.[5] However, she said she would not seek to reform the law.[34] There were 478 cases in 2010.[35]

Post-2014 coup[edit]

A banner in Bangkok informs that using social media to "like" or "share" a picture or article could land them in prison. The banner says this is "for the sake of the monarchy".

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.[36] Military courts have 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). It was Thailand's longest recorded sentence for lèse-majesté.[37][38] The courts were dubbed "kangaroo courts."[19]

Human rights groups say the lèse-majesté laws have been used as a political weapon to stifle free speech.[3] iLaw, a Thai non-profit organization seeking legislative change, released a 2014 annual report which details changes after the 2014 coup. The junta issued orders and invoked martial law to hold persons in custody for seven days without pressing any charges against them. Secret trials were used. The officials seized personal communication devices to search for incriminating evidence.[39]

In December 2014, parents of Srirasmi Suwadee, formerly a Thai princess, were sentenced for “insulting the royal family and lodging a malicious claim.”[40] In 2015, the Minister of Justice asked the French ambassador to help extradite Thais charged with lèse-majesté; however, the military government has never successfully extradited someone living abroad.[41] In November 2015, Glyn T. Davies, the US ambassador to Thailand, was investigated for a speech criticizing long prison sentences handed to those who found guilty of lèse-majesté. Critics accuse the junta of harnessing the deep reverence that Thais have for the king to boost their own power.[42] In 2016, Facebook blocked users in Thailand from accessing a page satirizing 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 Facebookers.[43]

Acts punished[edit]

Acts deemed insulting to Bhumibol's image are also considered as criminal offences under the doctrine of lèse-majesté in Thailand. This includes placing photographs of anybody on a website in such a way as to appear above photographs of the king.[44] In 2007 Oliver Jufer, a Swiss man, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for daubing black paint on portraits of Bhumibol while drunk in Chiang Mai.[45][46] Suwicha Thakor was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, later commuted to 10, for posting a picture on an Internet web board that was deemed insulting to Bhumibol, thereby violating section 112 of the Criminal Code and violating the Computer Crime Act (CCA) of 2007. The CCA was passed by the military junta following the 2006 coup. Suwicha's conviction was the first time that it had been successfully used to prosecute lèse-majesté.[47][48] A nurse wearing black on Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday was charged with lèse majesté.[49] 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.[50]

Notable cases[edit]

Date Person(s) Description of the crime and legal proceedings
2006 Michael Wright, British historian Doubted the genuineness of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, allegedly created by Ramkhamhaeng in the 13th century.[51]
Mar 2007 Lech Tomasz Kisielwicz, a French national of Polish descent Refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses. He was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok.[52]
May 2008 Jonathan Head, BBC correspondent and FCCT vice-president He was accused of lèse majesté three times: 1) authoring articles that referred to alleged support for the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) by members of the royal family, 2) writing that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn might find it difficult to "fill his father's shoes", and 3) allowing a picture of a politician to be placed above a picture of Bhumibol on a BBC web page.[53][54] He was not deported, but left Thailand at the end of his three-year BBC assignment.
Sep 2008 Harry Nicolaides[55] from Melbourne, Australia. Wrote an offending passage in his self-published book Verisimilitude. The book, which sold a mere seven copies, mentioned the "romantic entanglements and intrigues" of royalty.[56] He was arrested upon arriving at Bangkok's international airport[57] and charged with lèse majesté. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to three years in jail[58] but then pardoned by the king after spending a month in jail, released, and deported.[59]
Apr 2009 Daranee "Da Torpedo" Chanchoengsilpakul, UDD activist Initially sentenced to 18 years in prison (six years for each three comments she made) without suspension for "intending to insult" Bhumibol and Sirikit at a political protest.[60] She did not actually mention the monarchs in her speech (she said the "ruling class"), however, the court ruled that the prosecution "brought evidence that makes it possible to interpret that the defendant meant the King and Queen Sirikit."[61] In 2011 the appeals court voided the sentence given by the criminal court. A retrial sentenced her to 15 years, five years per each offence, in prison.[62] On 27 August 2016, Darunee was released after requesting a royal pardon and serving more than eight years in prison.[63]
Apr 2010 Wipas Raksakulthai, Thai businessman A post to his Facebook account allegedly insulting Bhumibol.[64] The arrest was reportedly the first lèse majesté charge against a Thai Facebook user.[65] In response, Amnesty International named Wipas Thailand's first prisoner of conscience in nearly three decades.[66]
May 2011 Joe Gordon, an American citizen born in Thailand as Lerpong Wichaikhammat[67] Posted a link on his blog to a banned book about the ailing king. Also was reportedly suspected of translating, from English into Thai, portions of The King Never Smiles, an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and posting them online, along with articles he wrote that allegedly defamed the royal family.[68][69]

"I want President Obama and Hillary Clinton to intervene on on my behalf," he is quoted.[70] After being denied bail eight times, a shackled–and–handcuffed Gordon said in court on 10 October, "I'm not fighting in the case. I'm pleading guilty, sirs."[71] On 8 December 2011 a court in Thailand sentenced him to two and a half years in prison (halved from five years due to pleading guilty).[72] On 10 July 2012, Gordon received a pardon from the king and was released from jail.[73]

Mar 2012 Akachai Hongkangwan Selling VCDs containing a segment of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Foreign Correspondent series.[74] Australian foreign correspondent Eric Campbell and ABC's entire Bangkok bureau had been banned from entering Thailand after they aired an investigation of Bhumibol's role in the military's violent 2010 crackdown on protesters.
May 2012 "Uncle SMS" (real name Ampon TangnoppakulThai: อำพล ตั้งนพกุล — known familiarly as "Ah Kong" "อากง") He was accused of sending four short message service (SMS) messages from his cell phones. The messages were deemed offensive to the King and Queen of Thailand. He was denied bail on eight occasions[75] and died from liver cancer in a prison hospital at the age of 61 while serving a 20–year prison sentence.[76][77] Amnesty International named Ampon Tangnoppakul a prisoner of conscience[78] in 2011.
Jan 2013 Somyot Prueksakasemsuk Sentenced to ten years in prison, convicted of publishing two articles under a pseudonym that made negative references to the crown in his now-defunct magazine Voice of Taksin.[79] Amnesty International has designated Somyot Prueksakasemsuk a prisoner of conscience.
Sep 2013 Yuthapoom Martnok He was accused of lèse majesté by his brother, and "has been jailed for a year in a Bangkok prison" while waiting for a court ruling, according to a Bangkok Post article.[80] He was acquitted and released one day after the article ran.[81]
1 Oct 2013 Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Quoted remarks made by an opponent protesting the 2008 resumption of PAD protests.[82] The appeals court in so doing reversed a lower court acquittal (Thailand has no bar to double jeopardy) handed down on 26 September 2012. The lèse majesté had resulted from Sondhi's having quoted remarks made by Daranee Chanchoengsilpakul.[83] Sondhi's 2012 acquittal upheld prosecution for whatever words Sondhi had quoted, but for much less than "18 years in prison without suspension." Sondhi was sentenced to two years imprisonment, then released after posting 500,000 baht (US$15,935) in bail.
2013 Activist Pornthip "Golf Prakai Fai" Munkong, and Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem For "their parts in a political play", according to a Bangkok Post article.[84]
15 Dec 2015 Thanakorn Siripaiboon, Thai factory worker He faces multiple charges including that of insulting the king's adopted dog Tongdaeng. He was detained on 8 December 2015 and kept in an undisclosed location prompting fears of his forced disappearance.[85] He faces multiple charges including that of insulting the king's adopted dog Tongdaeng. Thai military junta did not detail the precise insult made towards the animal. He faced up to 37 years in prison.[86] He was granted bail on 8 March 2016; the bail was set at half a million baht.
6 May 2016 Patnaree Chankij, a mother of a prominent pro-democracy activist She was charged with lèse majesté for failing to criticize or take action on personal Facebook messages that were sent to her account by her son's friend Burin Intin.[87] According to a statement made by her lawyer, "[Police] Officers interpreted refusal to reprimand something is equal to agreeing with it".[88][89] On 8 May 2016 media said that Chankij was released on bail.[90]

Internet blocking measures[edit]

Image displayed from Thailand's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology when accessing prohibited content, such as The Daily Mail, from Thailand in 2014.

Of particular concern to Thailand relating to the Internet are (1) malicious comments made against the institution of the monarchy and the royal families, who are by law not in a position to defend themselves, (2) improper content and language aimed at inciting hatred and undermining national security for political or other reasons, and (3) pornographic content, in particular child pornography.[citation needed]

The government, through the Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes, maintains a "war room" where about a dozen computer specialists monitor the content of the Internet for pages which disparage the monarchy or pose a threat to national security. A web crawler is used to search widely. 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.[91]

In 2008, "more than 4,800 webpages ha[d] been blocked...because they contain[ed] content deemed insulting to Thailand's royal family".[92] As of December 2010, nearly 60,000 websites have been banned for alleged insults against Bhumibol. As of 2011, 70,000 pages had been blocked over a four-year period.[93]

On 4 April 2007, the Thai government blocked Thai access to YouTube as a result of a video clip which it deemed insulting to the king.[94][95] Various leaders of the military junta claimed that the clip was an attempt to undermine the monarchy, attack Thailand as a country, and threaten national security.[96]

The website of Same Sky Books, publishers of Same Sky magazine, was shut down by the military government after comments on its bulletin board questioned claims made by the Thai media that the entire country was in mourning over the death of Princess Galyani Vadhana.[97]

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".[98] Previously, she had been jailed without bail for nearly a year for not removing—in 2008[98]—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 insulting intent. Arrested in September 2010, she could face up to 50 years imprisonment if found guilty.[99][100][101]

Opinion[edit]

Support[edit]

A Thai official said that the lèse majesté law is similar to libel law for commoners. Some abuse their rights by spreading hate speeches or distorted information to incite hatred towards the monarchical institution. Those who were accused of lèse majesté had right to fair trial, due opportunity to contest the charges and assistance from lawyer, as well as the right to appeal.[102]

In May 2016, 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."[103]

A judge in a lèse majesté case, which a man was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison, said he would have given a longer sentence, but was advised on the shorter term by the court's deputy president.[104]

Oppose[edit]

The lèse majesté law is described as "draconian."[105] Amnesty International considers anyone jailed for insulting Bhumibol to be a political prisoner.[106]

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."[19]

Satirical reaction[edit]

Not The Nation, an anonymous website[107] that satirizes a Thai newspaper, The Nation, satirized the media and public response paid 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.[67] NTN later satirized plea bargaining in the "Uncle SMS" case.[108] 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.[109]

In July 2014, British comedian John Oliver described Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn 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.[110] 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."[111]

Activists against the law[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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