Monday, July 20, 2015

The folly of Thailand hunting lese majeste fugitives abroad

Wielding the law for political purpose has already damaged the country's record on human rights

The military government is busy squandering what is left of its international credibility by hunting lese majeste suspects who have fled overseas. The move can do nothing to improve Thailand's reputation, only further tarnish its record on human rights.

Last week Justice Minister General Paiboon Khumchaya caused further embarrassment to the country when he handed a list of three Thai nationals accused of demeaning the monarchy to the French ambassador.

The minister did not seek extradition of the three suspects, whose names have not been made public, but instead merely implied that Thailand wanted them prosecuted.

The justice and foreign ministers are working together on the matter, but both know very well that France and other countries thought to be harbouring lese majeste suspects have no such royalist Lawson their books. So they are reduced to communicating to foreign diplomats their "desire" that these fugitives be deported and hoping that friendly relations will persuade the countries in question to comply.

It is unfortunate for this government that most other nations around the world have no laws protecting monarchy. Those that do have them rarely enforce them, or at least the punishment is lenient. Unlike in Thailand, criticising and even insulting the monarchy is not regarded as a serious crime across most of the world, and it certainly does not warrant pleas for extradition of citizens who have fled overseas.

More importantly, governments all over the world - including those in countries that retain monarchical rule - have long recognised that the lese majeste law in Thailand is routinely enforced for political purposes rather than to protect the revered King. The charge is applied here mostly to people who criticise the elitist establishment.

Better known as Article 112 of the Penal Code, the law provides legal protection only to Their Majesties the King and Queen, the heir apparent and, as needed, the regent.

Article 112 simply says "Whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years."

Other members of the Thai royal family are not covered by the law, and neither were the kings of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Lanna or Lan Xang.

The international community has come to recognise that the Thai military government is enforcing Article 112 as a means of silencing its opponents.

More citizens have been imprisoned for lese majeste under the current government than under any other administration in modern history, according to a survey by rights-protection group iLaw.

As of the start of this month, at least 51 people had been charged with lese majeste since last year's coup, iLaw found.

In many cases, the charge was applied for acts or statements that made no direct mention of the monarchy, but which officials loosely interpreted as defaming or libelling the royal institution. Two students who presented a play entitled "The Wolf Bride" at Thammasat University in 2013 were arrested last year and jailed for two years and six months under Article 112. A person who helped present the play has fled abroad to escape punishment. It seems that person's name is also on a wanted list that the junta has submitted to a foreign government.

Wielding the law for political purpose has already damaged the country's record on human rights. Hunting these fugitives abroad takes us to a new low. The Nation, Bangkok


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