Thailand should reverse its recent backward slide in respect for freedom of expression, as illustrated by the sharp increase over the past ten months in cases under the lese majeste law.
In this regard, Amnesty International welcomes Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s establishment, as reported in December 2009, of a panel to scrutinise enforcement of the law.
Since April 2009, at least two Thai nationals have been convicted of lese majeste offences and imprisoned. Suwicha Thakhor and Darunee Chanchoengsilapakul are serving 10- and 18-year sentences respectively—although the latter case is presently on appeal. Hundreds of other active cases of alleged lese majeste remain.
Thailand’s lese majeste law prohibits any word or act which “defames, insults, or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent”. It supersedes the 2007 Thai Constitution in cases where they conflict, and goes beyond the permissible restrictions on freedom of expression provided for under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.
Many people charged under the lese majeste law, including Suwicha Thakhor, have also been charged under the 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act. This Act has led to a sharp increase in monitoring of the internet for lese majeste content: tens of thousands of websites have been blocked by the government in Thailand. This broad-ranging censorship of websites in itself constitutes a violation of the ICCPR. The Prime Minister further acknowledged in December that there were problems with the Act’s enforcement.
Amnesty International is also concerned with the characterization of the lese majeste law by the Minister of Justice as a matter of national security, and the subsequent decision in June 2009 to hold Darunee Chanchoengsilapakul’s trial behind closed doors on that basis. National security is indeed one of the grounds set out in the ICCPR on which a state may impose limitations on freedom of expression, but it may do so only pursuant to a publicly-proclaimed state of emergency which threatens the life of the nation. This has not been done—and is not the case—in Thailand.
Amnesty International has acknowledged the nation’s considerable progress—under the guidance of His Majesty the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej—in the advancement of human rights over the past several decades, making the recent roll-back in freedom of expression of even greater concern. In a speech given on the occasion of his birthday in December 2005, His Majesty the King stated that the lese majeste law was too strict, that its application caused harm to him as well as to Thailand, and that the lack of freedom to make fair criticism reflected poorly on the nation.
In that spirit, Amnesty International supports the Prime Minister’s new initiative, and encourages the Royal Thai government to amend the lese majeste law so that it complies with international law and standards.
Specifically, the government should abolish the law’s provision allowing any citizen to report another for alleged violation of the law. Pending this and all other necessary legislative changes, the government should suspend the use of the lese majeste law.
The government should also cease censorship of websites on the grounds of upholding the lese majeste law.
According to Thailand’s Office of the Judiciary, in 2008—the last year for which statistics were available—authorities prosecuted 77 cases of lese majeste.
In addition to the two cases above, Thai national Boonyuen Prasertying was sentenced in November 2008 to 12 years’ imprisonment on lese majeste charges, later reduced to two years on appeal in November 2009.
Section 45 of the 2007 Constitution limits freedom of expression for purposes of “maintaining the security of State”, but such limitations must comply with Thailand’s obligations under the ICCPR.
[Prachatai: see Abhisit's remarks marking the International Human Righs Day event held by the National Human Rights Commission on 14 Dec 2009:
PM wants end to abuse of laws
Abhisit defends ISA use during rallies
Published: 15/12/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Better enforcement of the lese majeste and computer crime laws is needed to prevent their use to settle scores with political and business rivals, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says.
Mr Abhisit yesterday promised his government would never misuse its power to get at its opponents.
A number of lese majeste charges have been filed against politically active individuals in recent years as the country has been deeply split because of social divisions and political conflicts.
The computer crime act has also been used to back charges against people who have posted political comments on websites on legally sensitive issues.
The lese majeste law has been widely abused. It is among the laws frequently used by political groups as a political tool, Mr Abhisit said.
"Many people widely use this law to back their charges against their opponents, which is an abuse of the spirit of the law," he said.
As a result, the government has set up a panel to scrutinise the enforcement of this law so it would apply in both letter and spirit, he said.
With the computer crime act, Mr Abhisit said there were problems with its enforcement.
The government has been cautious about it and reviewing things in an effort to bring more balance to its enforcement.
It was part of a speech he made yesterday while attending a Human Rights Fair on Chaeng Watthana Road to mark Human Rights Day last Thursday.
He insisted his government would not use any laws as a tool to get rid of its political rivals. But he said we cannot do without laws as they must be enforced to ensure peace and order in the country.
The prime minister said there were too many politically charged conflicts in the country today, prompting certain groups to exercise their rights beyond the boundary stated in the constitution.
In the year since his government came to power, he said he has made it clear that different political opinions are something that is natural in a democratic society.
People who view things differently from people in power, or the government, have the right to voice their opinion under the constitution.
The government would not violate their rights to express their political views in public, Mr Abhisit said.
Some have criticised the government for invoking the Internal Security Act to handle political rallies, he said.
The reason the government invokes the special act is to protect the rights of the majority. It was also because the government learned a lesson from the April riots that stemmed from the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship's rally, which spun out of control despite repeated assurances from the rally leaders that they would not allow that to happen.
The riots were no longer a political group's expression of political opinions. Their leaders had announced clearly their intention to obstruct the government's activities, to cause chaos and to harm certain people, he said.
The protesters had not merely exercised their rights but violated the rights of other people. As a result, the government was forced to invoke the executive decree in emergency situations.
Fortunately, no one has been killed during the security operations, he said.]