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Over the Top

Dear me, I can hardly keep up.  A Prime Minister talks about democracy in something more than platitudes, and in front of foreigners.  And comes home to a chorus of boos from those whose recent contributions to democracy have included coups, live fire zones, and mass censorship of the internet.  How dare she mention the word ‘democracy’ 27 times in a speech at a forum on democracy!

Included in the brick-bats hurled at Yingluck was a singularly offensive comment by the Thai Rath cartoonist Chai Ratchawat, whose real name is Somchai Katanyutanan (don’t you just hate these people who masquerade behind patently fabricated pen-names?).

Chai made an unfavorable comparison between PM Yingluck, an ‘evil woman’ who sold her country, and sex workers, who are not evil because they only sell their bodies.  (Chai has previously published royalist cartoon books, some of which are directed at children, doubtless to help them develop proper moral attitudes.)

The PM was evidently not amused at being seen as something less than a sex worker and has filed a criminal defamation case against Chai, which seems vindictive but is par for the course for politicians of all stripes. What else you do expect if you include defamation in the criminal as well as civil code?

And her minions in the Ministry of Internet Censorship Technology have threatened to go beyond the legal and close down websites that insult the PM.  (Yes, they can legally close a website provided they first get a court order, and the courts routinely rubber stamp these while you wait, but the MICT lads have a tendency to short circuit this tiresome legal rigmarole by leaning on Internet Service Providers to block access without any legal authority whatsoever.)

That staunch defender of free speech, the Bangkok Post, sees here a threat to the right to freedom of expression, and I have to agree, no matter what taste it leaves in my mouth.  But their editorial curiously reckons that the PM’s suit has no chance of winning. 

‘Mr Somchai’s post is so offensive, so exaggerated, so over the top, that it can’t really defame the premier’, they say.

The theory seems to be that if you say something that is just normally offensive, then you can get done for defamation; but you are extremely offensive, then you can’t.

Now I have looked long and hard at Title XI, Chapter 3, Articles 326-333 of the Criminal Code and I can’t find anything that defines a degree of ‘excessive libel’ beyond which you are no longer committing an offence.

But I suspect that the Post may be correct and is referring to one of the non-laws of Thailand, the rules that are nowhere in the statute books, but which everyone is supposed to know about and observe.  And observe far more strictly than the written rules, in fact.

For example, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the scion of the Red Bull family whose Ferrari ran down and killed a policeman on Sukhumwit Road last September, has still not been indicted because the public prosecutor is waiting for the police to include the offence of speeding on his charge sheet.  The police seem very reluctant to do this.  It must be because their cameras clocked him at a 170 kph and ‘everyone knows’ that breaking the speed limit means driving at between 81 and 103 kph (which is the fastest speed that any of the well-maintained Thai police vehicles can manage).  Anything over that and you’re away scot free.

Similarly, there has been no prosecution of anyone for the deaths of 78 men and boys in military custody after the Tak Bai incident in 2004 (well there was a prosecution of the survivors, but that’s a different matter).  Clearly the non-law in this case is that if you bump off a one person, or maybe even 3 or 4, then you could end up facing the death penalty.  But if you are responsible for the deaths of scores, then you have gone too far and there is no case to answer.

This must be true because in the only massacre since then in 2010, the same thing happened.  Or rather didn’t happen.

In this case, however, there is another non-law at play.  The investigation into the 3 generals responsible for the circumstances leading to the deaths exonerated them (oh come on, stop feigning surprise there).  But the army commander-in-chief at the time, General Pravit Wongsuwan, made it clear that it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had been found guilty.  “There is no disciplinary penalty for those holding the rank of general,” he said, proving that not only are some actions so over the top that they can’t be punished, some people are too.