Monday review: Big lèse majesté cases and rock star charity marathon

A rock singer’s charity campaign has sparked debate over the ethics of donations, while a senior academic is facing a lèse majesté lawsuit for criticising King Naresuan, who ruled the kingdom of Ayutthaya 400 years ago.  
 
Thailand’s lèse majesté law is notorious for its excessive punishments and broad interpretations. Even though the law as written only provides protection for the King, the Queen, the heir apparent or the regent, it is used to prosecute those who criticise other entities related to the monarchy, including the Crown Princess, past kings and even a royal dog. 
 
The arbitrariness of the law was underlined last week by the prosecution of Sulak Sivaraksa, 84, a renowned royalist. Bangkok police on 9 October pressed charges against Sulak for defaming the ancient King Naresuan during a public speech on “Thai History: Construction and Deconstruction” at Thammasat University, Bangkok.   
 
In the speech, Sulak asserted that the legend of the “elephant battle” between Naresuan and a Burmese Crown Prince was constructed. He also criticised the personality of the legendary Ayutthaya king as cruel.  
 
Sulak is an independent scholar who proclaims himself as a “moderate conservative” who wishes to see the monarchy prosper together with democracy. He is a proactive critic of lèse majesté, believing that the arbitrary enforcement of the royal defamation law will only harm the monarchy.
 
Sulak’s prosecution has been met with public criticism. A campaign has been created on Change.org calling for the charge to be dismissed. Sulak, however, told the media that he will deal with the case with ‘equanimity.’ 
 
“Article 112 covers only the King, the Queen, and the current Heir Apparent. King Naresuan died 500 years ago [sic]. The law does not cover him. The military regime just wants to persecute me. They can do anything. So I achieve equanimity. I’m detached. In fact I pity them. I pity the NCPO. I pity those who have power,” stated Sulak.
 
Sulak is not the only individual troubled by the lèse majesté law. On 6 October, the Attorney General Khemchai Chutiwongse announced his intention to revive lèse majesté and Computer Crimes charges against Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister.
 
The accusation is based on an interview with Thaksin by a South Korean news programme in 2015, in which he said that the 2014 coup d’état was made possible with the support of certain people within ‘palace circles’.
 
Khemchai stated that the recently enacted Organic Law on the criminal prosecution of political office holders now allows the court to rule on cases even if the defendant is absent. The new law also states that defendants have to show up in court in order to appeal their case.
 
Khemchai said that in addition to the lèse majesté lawsuit, other corruption cases against Thaksin will be revived.  
 
In response, Thaksin tweeted a message on 9 October promising to take legal action against those accusing him of royal defamation. On 12 October, Thaksin’s lawyer also submitted a petition to the Office of the Attorney General calling for a revision of the case.
 
“If there are any more claims and allegations about me violating the highest institution again, I will have my legal personnel bring cases against all of them,” Thaksin tweeted.

Can charity marathon save Thai hospitals?

 
Last week, well-known rocker Artiwara Kongmalai, also known as Toon Bodyslam, announced a charity run, “Take One Step Each for 11 Hospitals Nationwide”.
 
He plans to run from Yala to Chiang Rai from 1 November to 25 December, covering a distance of 2,191 km, to raise funds for medical equipment for hospitals across the country. 
 
But not everyone sees Toon’s campaign as good medicine for Thailand’s much criticised healthcare system. Many have argued that it is the government that should take full financial responsibility for public hospitals to ensure the basic welfare of taxpayers. Toon’s charity campaign may distract from the government’s duty to maintain the health care system.  
 
Boonwara Sumano from the Thailand Development Research Institute fears that most of the donations will go to large hospitals which have relatively better resources, while small hospitals in remote areas will continue to be left behind.
 
Major provincial and district hospitals are overloaded with cases that have been referred to them from community hospitals and local health centres which do not have the resources to treat them, he notes.
 
Boonwara also notes a trend among Thai people who will bypass local hospitals in favour of big and famous hospitals before they even know what is wrong with them. This adds to the overload of cases in large hospitals, while depriving local hospitals of government funding, which is calculated on a per capita basis.
 
“Donations may also be worse than the state budget in the sense that no one checks if the money is spent in accordance with how it’s meant to be used. This is the problem with the old-fashioned value of charity which does not expect to result in concrete change. Just donate, feel good, great, you’re done,” Boonwara stated. 
 
In a similar campaign in December 2016, Toon collected 63 million baht in donations on a 10-day run from Bangkok to Prachuap Khiri Khan, covering a total of 400 km. All money was donated to Bang Saphan Hospital.