Matichon published its interview of Dr. Somkit Lertpaithoon on 4 January 2012. Dr. Somkit Lertpaithoon is the rector of Thammasat University who also teaches public law. The entire interview covered several issues, mainly Kanthoop, lèse majesté law (Article 112), and the proposed constitution amendment. This translation of includes only the part of the interview which focuses on the rector’s views on Kanthoop’s admission to Thammasat despite the lèse majesté accusations against her and on Article 112.
The Thammasat rector has faced strong criticisms from many royalists for the admission of Kanthoop to the university. Many have posted angry comments on his Facebook wall (to which he has not responded). I translated the Matichon interview of Kanthoop earlier here.
Dr. Somkit’s interview was conducted by Panthawit Thepchan.
(Note: Any inconsistencies that might appear in the interview exist in the original Thai-language interview transcript as published by Matichon. Additional texts in [brackets] are provided for clarity.)
Panthawit: Why has Thammasat University admitted Kanthoop, while Silapakorn and Kasetsart Universities have both rejected her?
Somkit: I see no university rule that says Thammasat students must respect the [three Thai pillars] Nation, Religion and King. If there were such a rule, it would mean that Thammasat is obliged to check if this particular student loves the Nation and the Religion, or if she has a religious faith. This sort of questions would arise. It would not be just about Kanthoop. So I wonder why those who have posted on my Facebook are questioning only about Kanthoop and not about other students. Many Thammasat students go on many political stages, both Yellow and Red. Why only Kanthoop? This is my question.
Next, I don’t know if Kanthoop really has done what [she has been accused of]. Why demand the rector to investigate? A university rector has a lot of work to do. One student among 35,000 in the entire student body is a very small matter. The crux of the matter is, the alleged lèse majesté comments were made before Kanthoop was admitted to this university. Lastly, we should not have this witch hunt because we don’t know if she really is a witch. And even if she really is a witch, a witch can also live in society. Even those vampires in Twilight can exist alongside humans.
Panthawit: So your view is that [Kanthoop] should have an opportunity to study at this university?
Somkit: Let me give an example. If you understand Thai society, [you know that] in the 6 October 1967 [student protests] there were a group of students who loved the nation and the people, who joined the Communist Party, such as Seksan Prasertkul, Theerayuth Boonmee and many others. Today these people are among the crème de la crème of the country. They may have lost their way for a while but they returned when society welcomed them back.
Compare Kanthoop with those students who joined the Communist Party years ago. As a pooyai [elder], as the rector, and as a Thammasat person, [I believe] if the kid has the knowledge and the ability to have passed the entrance exam to this university then she is entitled to study at this university. She has not yet been charged or arrested for whatever she has done before she came here. There has been only an allegation of an illegal act. Thammasat’s rules and regulations clearly state that if any student has been legally charged and given a jail sentence in the final verdict in a court of law, the student will be expelled, except in cases of misdemeanor and wrongdoings by negligence. Therefore, I can only expel Kanthoop if the court gives her a jail sentence. Even if she is charged today, I still can’t expel her. Please, let’s not push anyone’s back against the wall. I think each individual has his or her own political opinion. What I think is that Kanthoop has radical ideas.
Panthawit: If you think Kanthoop has a radical view, how will the Social Welfare Faculty or the university deal with what has happened [in her case]?
Somkit: On the day Kanthoop was admitted to Thammasat, the Social Welfare Faculty was well aware of [Kanthoop’s history]. The faculty interviewed her twice. In addition, the dean of the faculty also raised Kanthoop’s matter at a deans’ meeting. At the meeting, none of the deans knew that Kanthoop was accused by [a segment of] the [Thai] online community that she posted comments deemed to be lèse majesté. [Some of us] only knew that she went on a redshirt stage. I’d like to say that if anyone wants me to punish her according to the accusations, then give me [information]. I will set up a disciplinary committee, and those who demand a disciplinary investigation must also be responsible if she is proved to be not guilty according to the accusations. There are only people who put pressure on the Thammasat rector, but those people who are putting pressure are not taking any responsibility. But the rector must take responsibility.
Having said that, the issue is not me being fearful of any lawsuit or not having courage to do what I am supposed to do. I look at this matter in terms of giving a chance to 18-19 year olds. In the case of Kanthoop, she may have obtained a certain set of information, so she thinks according to the information she has received. If, by this rationale, in which she must be expelled from Thammasat because of her political opinion, you’d have to expel certain MPs from the parliament for having spoken on a redshirt stage. I’ll tell you that most Thammasat students are not redshirt. Kanthoop has come to study here; she is bound to meet a lot of friends and many types of peer pressure. Somebody told me that at the freshmen welcome ceremony she didn’t stand to the royal anthem, but in the end she had to stand. I don’t know if that really happened the way some students told me. But if that was true, why did Kanthoop have to stand up? Had she wanted to sit, she could have done that.
Panthawit: Let’s return to this point. Why was there a need to have a meeting with all the deans in the university? Was expression of a different political opinion [by Kanthoop] such a big issue that it warranted such a major meeting?
Somkit: Because there were complaints from people within the university as well as from outside. We had to clarify the matter.
Panthawit: Weren’t you afraid of being accused yourself by admitting Kanthoop to Thammasat?
Somkit: No. What would I be afraid of? If I had to take care of [Kanthoop], I would have to take care of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Worachet Pakeerat or Piyabutr Saengkanokkul [Thammasat lecturers who are vocal critics of Article 112]. How many people would I have to take care of for exercising freedom to express their different political opinions? It’s not just about Kanthoop or others who have different political opinions. Say, for instance, Thammasat Student A has [allegedly] killed Thammasat Student B, but as long as the trial is still ongoing, Student A is still entitled to study at Thammasat until there is a final verdict which results in unsuspended jail sentence.
Panthawit: In the case of Kanthoop, who is now a student at Thammasat, an online community has publicly revealed her personal data. A media outlet [ASTV-Manager Online] has published an article about her, questioning Thammasat for having admitted her. As the Thammasat rector, will you be making any official response to that? And if so, how?
Somkit: No. The rector isn’t that available. The floods have caused 2.8 billion baht damages. [Thammasat University was flooded.] I have many major issues to deal with, like how to improve research capacity of Thammasat lecturers, to become a world-class university. The dean of the Social Welfare Faculty has taken care of Kanthoop as well as served as her advisor. Ordinarily deans don’t serve as advisors to students. There are a lot of people handling this case. Don’t worry. Many people are watching Kanthoop. Let me stress that if Kanthoop commits any wrongdoing within Thammasat, I will take care of her. I personally don’t agree with Kanthoop’s behavior according to the accusations, so don’t say that I’m helping Kanthoop because I’m on her side. Kanthoop’s case had my attention, that’s why I took the matter to the deans’ meeting to discuss her admission, and the majority of the deans agreed we should admit her.
Panthawit: Was the admission of Kanthoop a way to mitigate the opposition to you from those with different political opinions from yours?
[Note: Dr. Somkit is perceived as a royalist and supporter of the 2006 coup. He was one of the drafters of the 2007 Constitution. He has challenged the merit of a proposal by a group of young progressive Thammasat law lecturers known as Nitirat to nullify all legal effects of the 2006 coup and to amend the lèse majesté provision in the Criminal Code.]
Somkit: That never occurred to me. We admitted Kanthoop because she passed the entrance exam; she was entitled to study [here]. If I had done that [admitting Kanthoop] to appease the redshirt government, I would have had to admit a hundred more redshirt students, which I wouldn’t have done. On the flip side, Thammasat does not distinguish students by their shirt color, but by their individual knowledge and ability. Whatever shirt-color you are, once you have entered Thammasat, you are Thammasat. If you are a redshirt, you must respect others of different colors in Thai society and at Thammasat. If you are Yellow, you must also respect that there are those who are Red. One must adjust oneself in Thai society. Thammasat endeavors to show society at large that [in] a good society, [we] can exist alongside one another, regardless of our colors. We shouldn’t be witch-hunting one another.
Panthawit: A dean has been appointed [Kanthoop’s] advisor and her case was discussed at a deans’ meeting. Doesn’t this reflect that political disagreement is a problem at Thammasat?
Somkit: Let me tell you that a number of people have complimented me on Facebook, saying that there is only one commendable thing ever done by the Thammasat University rector which is having admitted Kanthoop. As Thammasat rector, I don’t pay attention to the berating [of me] because I present myself as Yellow or Red. I adhere to the Thammasat principle that there is freedom in every inch of Thammsat. Thammasat teaches one to love the people. At Thammasat one can say anything as long as one does not violate another’s rights and freedom. Not only Kanthoop. Even Nitirat, I gave them warnings when they had their many press conferences. They can have their seminars about fixing the Article 112 problem, but if they violate others’ rights and freedom then I’ll have to take care of them. I must have measures [to deal with freedom and rights violations]. I won’t allow people to use Thammasat [as a political] stage to berate others or violate others’ rights. That’s a key Thammasat principle.
[Note: See some background of Nitirat’s proposal to amend Article 112 here, Worachet’s detailed presentation of Nitirat’s proposed amendment of Article 112 at Thammasat on 15 January 2012 here (YouTube VDO), and Prachatai news archive related to Nitirat here.]
Panthawit: What do you think of Article 112 in the Criminal Code? Do you have any problem with how this law has been applied like a group of people in this society has been shouting?
Somkit: Article 112 is about defaming or insulting the king and the heir apparent. This law has existed for a long time in Thai society, evidently at least during the Rattanakosin period. And [such a law] exists not only in Thai society but also in foreign countries. This is a legal provision to protect the head of state, be they kings, presidents, or any other types of head of state. Every country has this type of legal provision because defaming and insulting the head of state is like defaming and insulting any other person in general.
Article 112 has always been problematic in the eyes of scholars. The problem is not the legal provision itself, but the interpretation thereof. Enforcement—the enforcers are the police and the courts—in the principle of the criminal law looks at intent. If there is no intent, then there is no accountability. Principally, there are three categories of Thai laws concerning defamation and libel.
1. Direct/face-to-face insult (ดูหมิ่นซึ่งหน้า), punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment
2. Defamation/libel (หมิ่นประมาท), punishable by up to one year imprisonment, for which the court looks at intent
[3.] In the case of [defamation] of the king, [the punishment] is 3-15 years according Article 112; as it happens the practices of legal enforcement and court trials [of cases under Article 112] thus far have not taken the intent into account.
This is a big problem concerning Article 112, which is an enforcement problem. From a legal perspective, [some] lawyers have said that those who have been charged with Article 112 in many cases should not be punished because the court did not use intent for arrests in other cases. For instance, Sondhi Limthongkul has repeated the words of Da Torpedo [who has just been found guilty and handed 15 years jail sentence] on a [rally] stage aiming to protect the king, therefore he did not have an intent [to defame the monarchy] and should not be punished. If someone were to file a complaint against Sondhi and the police interpreted the case as I said, then they would not accept the complaint, the state prosecutors wouldn’t file a charge in court, and the court wouldn’t have to judge Sondhi guilty because it was an act that lacked intent. And all others who have made comments aiming to protect the monarchy wouldn’t have to be punished according to Article 112. But if you say, you can’t say that, if a defamation is a defamation, then it means the court does not take into account intent in enforcing the law because the fundamental principle of criminal law is always intent.
Another problem with this article in the Criminal Code is the punishment. The punishment for ordinary defamation/libel is up to 6 months imprisonment for a face-to-face insult and up to one year imprisonment in the case of Mr. A defaming Mr. B or an officer. If compared with Article 112, I personally think the punishment in [Article 112] is too harsh.
Panthawit: Nidhi Eiwsriwong [respected historian and public intellectual attached to Chiang Mai University] wrote in an article that Article 112 is aimed to benefit [protect] the head of state. From national security perspective, [lèse majesté] could cause a rebellion in the kingdom. However, most defendants under this article do not have sufficient power to impact the head of state with their speech or writings or cause a rebellion to be brought about in the kingdom. How do you perceive Nidhi Eiwsriwong’s view?
Somkit: No. Nidhi made a broad interpretation. When we look at the purpose of a law, we look toward the future. But Article 112—the way it has been written from the past to the present—refers to individuals, not just the king as the head of state but also the individual who is the king. The law is just like any other defamation/libel law. For instance, if someone berates me, s/he berates Mr. Somkit as well as the rector of Thammasat University. Therefore, the key aspect in the problem concerning this article is not [the content of] the article itself but the interpretation in the enforcement of this article because it does not focus on intent.
Panthawit: A group of lecturers-academics [led by senior academic] Charnvit Kasetsiri has called for a panel to be set up to screen Article 112 complaints. The proposed panel may be represented by members of civil society and members of the parliament or the senate. What you think about this?
Somkit: It can’t be done. The law does not allow an establishment of any screening panel before a legal complaint can be made. Only the police, the state prosecutors and the courts have such an authority.
Panthawit: What about the proposal by the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which suggests that the government fix the Article 112 problem by allowing only the Office of the Principal Private Secretary of His Majesty the King to file [lèse majesté] complaints? What’s your view?
Somkit: Even more implausible because the palace should not be involved in the judicial process. To make the Principal Secretary Office or the palace the complainant would further involve the monarchy in politics. This is the matter of the state [because it’s about] the head of state. If the palace becomes the complainant, questions will arise in society: why does the palace file a complaint against this person and not that person, why does it make complaints against citizens? I don’t see that the Principal Secretary Office should handle the complaint process.
Personally, I am not concerned about how to amend this article because I am not an expert on criminal law. Fixing [Article 112] will be done by other experts, including even what Nitirat is doing. Importantly, those demanding or proposing amending [Article 112] must provide answers to society: why should there be any amendment and what will the amendment offer to society? They must answer this question: why would the punishment for the defamation/insult of the queen and the heir apparent have to be the same as the punishment for the defamation/insult of ordinary people, which is up to one year imprisonment?
Article 112 is like any other law that can be amended or debated within academic circles. Those proposing amending Article 112 aren’t committing lèse majesté. I don’t think [Thai] society will say that former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun [who has publically said that certain amendment of Article 112 is advisable] has defamed the king. There are a number of people who want to have the article amended who have good intention for the king. The matter with Article 112 is, different people are talking about the same thing but have different ideas. Those who want to amend it must give clear explanations to society why it needs to be amended. Personally I don’t think I will lead in amending this law because I am a public lawyer, not a criminal lawyer. Plus, I am a university rector. I have many problems to think about.