The current lèse majesté law, which was amended and became Article 112 of the Criminal Code in 1976 after the 6 Oct incident, carries a more severe penalty than during the Absolute Monarchy, law lecturer Somchai Preechasilpakul told a seminar at Chiang Mai University on 24 June.
The penalty for lèse majesté during the Absolute Monarchy was imprisonment for up to 7 years and a fine of up to 5,000 baht; the latter was later reduced to not more than 2,000 baht after the 1932 revolution, Somchai said.
What makes lèse majesté cases distinct from other cases is the fact that the detention of suspects has been the norm, and bail has been rare, he said.
As the court considers that these cases involve national security, court proceedings are not subject to public scrutiny. Suspects are faced with what Somchai calls a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, the difficulty in deciding whether to fight their case for the right to freedom of expression – and face the consequences, i.e. severe punishment – or to confess and do time for, say, one or two years, and then ask for a royal pardon.
He said that it was alarming to see the great deterioration in freedom of expression in Thailand. Subject to self-censorship, Thai mainstream media carries hardly any stories on lèse majesté cases.
‘Some reporters told me that they had always submitted reports on the issue, but their editors told them not to report on this,’ Somchai said.
Lèse majesté allegations have been excessively and broadly exploited like in the cases of Chotisak Onsoong who did not stand up for the royal anthem in a cinema and Jitra Kotchadet, the leader of former Triumph workers, who was fired because she appeared on a television programme wearing a campaign t-shirt in support of Chotisak.
Somchai said that the exploitation of the lèse majesté law and the resulting restriction of freedom of expression would ultimately backfire on the institution itself.
‘[We] have to discuss seriously whether this law should remain or how it should be amended. And while there is no amendment, what could be done is to stop using this law in a way that undermines the principles of democracy and threatens the freedom of the people,’ Somchai said.
According to David Streckfuss, an academic based in Khon Kaen and the author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse Majesté, there were 478 lèse majesté cases in 2010, a threefold increase from the 164 cases in the previous year, while in 2007 there were 126 cases, compared to an average of 5-6 cases per year in the period of 20 years before the 2006 coup. In the last 3-4 years, 46 cases have reached the Appeals Court and 9 the Supreme Court.
Streckfuss said that the issue of amending the lèse majesté law had been increasingly discussed. Although no public forum, like this one in Chiang Mai, has been held in the northeast, it does not mean that people there are ignorant about this issue.
‘Villagers in Isaan who I’ve talked to are quite knowledgeable about Article 112. Whenever red-shirt activities are held and signatures are collected for amendment of the law, the villagers dare to sign. They understand that Article 112 has been used as a political tool,’ Streckfuss said.
He said that more public forums should be held to discuss the issue so that people would feel that discussing this issue was normal, not scary or dreadful.
He said that two years ago the government had set up a committee headed by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice to find alternatives to prosecution, but there had never been any progress.
When asked by an audience member whether the lèse majesté law could be abolished if the Pheu Thai Party became government after the general elections, Somchai said that he had never heard anything about this issue from the party. This law can be exploited by anyone, and we should not place our hopes on politicians. To change the law depends on social force, he said.
Jitra Kotchadet told the forum that when the labour court gave its ruling in favour of her employer over dismissing her, the court described her as ‘lacking the spirit of the Thai nation’, with the court explaining that this ‘spirit’ means that Thai people revere and worship the King. However, when she later asked for a copy of the ruling, the court cut that bit out.
‘The labour court agreed with the employer that I had damaged the reputation of the company. The company said that it had fired me because I had a disloyal attitude. For example, I didn’t wear a yellow shirt on Mondays as the company wanted us to do. I didn’t wear black when Princess Galyani Vadhana passed away. When the company had workers sign well-wishing books for the King’s birthday, I signed, but the company said that I was not sincere because I was wearing a check shirt,' Jitra said.