NAKHONRATCHASIMA, Thailand, Thailand's most powerful political and social "hammer" may be the kingdom's lese majeste law. The law, expressed in Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states, "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years."
Often, however, whether you are ever convicted and punished or not is a question of who you are, who you happened to offend and who is protecting your interests. The law is supposedly designed to protect the country's revered monarchy, but is often misused to silence dissent, punish social and political enemies, or to employ against foreigners when Thais would face far less severe charges. Politicians, power brokers and colluding police all benefit from the application -- or merely the threat to apply -- the lese majeste law.
The law implies that lese majeste must be determined as a fact, not that it be deemed to have taken place. Yet, time and time again, Thailand's police have pressed charges against those "deemed" to have committed an offense against the monarchy.
This occurred under the former regime of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra when longtime foreign Thailand veterans working for the Far Eastern Economic Review wrote a piercing article that the government did not like. While Thaksin at the time protested that he had nothing to do with the witch-hunt, it was evident that he was pulling the strings. After all, his name had been mentioned in the article, with an intimation that perhaps he was not always in favor with the monarchy.
Later political events in the kingdom, including pro-Thaksin protestors attacking the home of His Majesty's Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulalonda, proved that perhaps the FEER article carried more fact than it did deemed fiction. But the writers were forced, despite global pressure against the Thai government, to shamefully apologize. The apology allowed them to remain in Thailand, but undoubtedly the experience took some of the wind out of their love-Thailand sails.
Having witnessed -- as a victim -- the misuse of the lese majesty law here in Thailand, this writer cautions foreigners first and foremost that the real danger is not merely saying the wrong thing, but in being perceived so by police or other powerful interests who themselves do not always have real national interests at stake. The higher up your accusers are, and the better connected they are with the military and police, and most importantly, with powerful politicians, the more chance you stand of being convicted.
While in 2005 His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej told the Thai nation that he was not a perfect being and only human, and that he wanted to hear criticism if he did anything wrong so he could improve himself, his subjects continued misapplying the law and taking advantage of its provisions. A powerful tool to silence protests, arouse public support and justify massive armed attacks against democracy protest groups, the lese majeste law in Thailand has faced frequent and strong protest, as well as both internal and external pressures for repeal. It may be that unless the nation's monarch himself calls for repeal, the law will remain on the books for decades more.
On Sept. 20, 2007, Khun Chotisak Onsoong attended a cinema in Bangkok. When it came time, as is the custom, for patrons to rise at the beginning of the movie for the royal anthem, Chotisak remained seated. Another patron nearby, Nawamin Witthayakul, noticed and told Chotisak to rise. The latter refused, considering that it was a matter of personal choice as to how people should demonstrate their respect for the anthem and the monarchy. Afterwards Nawamin went to the theater management and demanded that they take action, but they refused.
Determined, Nawamin went to the police five days later in Pathumwan district of Bangkok and lodged a lese majeste complaint against Chotisak. It took the police seven months to finally charge Chotisak with lese majeste. For his part, the former student activist who had protested against the Sept. 19, 2006 coup, says, "We have different ways of looking at things. To not rise is not an offense against anyone. That's what I think." Released on his own cognizance, Chotisak has signed an acknowledgment of the charge and is awaiting an order to appear in criminal court. He could face jail time, but has braved the political weather at home to live free.
Thailand's media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul, a primary leader of the country's anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy, was not forgiving, either. At a pro-democracy seminar at Thammasat University on April 25, Sondhi referred to Chotisak. Sondhi implied that given the attempts of Thaksin and his supporters to weaken and topple the monarchy, it was ominous that at this particular moment a Thai had suddenly refused to stand in respect to the king. Like his fellow subjects, Sondhi does not have any patience for those who may wish to choose whether to stand or not. An up-country Thai commented, "If he is allowed not to stand, then anyone who chooses not to will have to be accommodated." Precisely the point.
On April 11, 2007, Southeast Asian studies Ph.D. holder David Streckfuss had an article published in the Bangkok Post suggesting that perhaps it was time to repeal the country's draconian lese majeste law. Wrote Streckfuss, "With the worldwide attention on the King as the longest serving monarch, what a wonderful gift it would be for Thai society to give him or the Privy Council the discretion to take the appropriate measures needed to defend the reputation of the monarchy. Amend Section 112 of the Thai penal code by adding the clause that makes the use of the lese majeste possible 'only by order of the King or with his consent.' Otherwise, the lese majeste law in Thailand will ever be ready at hand to serve as a weapon in the political arena, always to a detriment to the institution the law intends to protect."
The suggestion that Thailand's lese majeste law be amended to where only the nation's monarch issues any such charge is a workable idea but faces overwhelming resistance in the Land of Smiles from powerful interests who have grown used to misusing the law for their own gain and others' losses. If the country's powerful police cannot yet bring themselves to repeal the law, then perhaps they can amend provisions in its enforcement to ensure that legitimate rights are protected on the one hand, and that persons filing lese majeste charges are made well aware of their obligations and possible repercussions from malicious filing.
In a document provided to Thai police on this subject, this writer asked that any individual signing a complaint of lese majeste swear that he or she has no personal conflict with the charged person, and that the person filing also accepts that should the charge be found to be malicious or without foundation, that the individual making allegations accept responsibility. Almost a year after receiving the suggestions, police have not bothered to respond. It is not in their interests to do so.
(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand's first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post -- www.thekoratpost.com -- he has spent over eight years in Thailand "embedded" with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)