Saturday, June 4, 2011

Free Speech in Thailand

Thailand‘s lèse-majesté laws are notorious. But do Thais care enough to get behind a push ahead of elections to amend the rules?

Public debate around Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws and related restrictions on freedom of expression appears to be growing, even as the country’s election-focused political parties steer clear of the issue in advance of July 3 polls.

The head of the Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, recently warned political parties against involving Thailand’s royal family in the election campaign. However, a number of separate civil society requests to amend the relevant section of the country’s Criminal Code are underway, with some writers and scholars – the latter known as the Nitirassadorn group – recently proposing amendments to the lèse-majesté laws, which would seemingly bring Thailand in line with constitutional monarchies elsewhere.

Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code concerns offences deemed to defame, insult or threaten the King, the Queen, the Heir Apparent or the Regent. Lèse-majesté carries a jail sentence of 3 to 15 years. Separately, Thailand’s Computer-Related Crimes Act makes it an offence to post online comments that endanger national security or come into conflict with Article 112 of the Criminal Code. Under the CCA and various emergency laws, tens of thousands of websites have been blocked in Thailand, prompting claims that freedom of expression is on the wane in the country. It's unclear if the Thai public at large is interested in the issue or how much traction the amendment campaigns will gain. Whether or not the country’s political leadership, current or future, will address the issue is equally unclear. According to the Matichon newspaper, Thailand’s outgoing Minister of Culture and election candidate Niphit Intarasombat said that he doen't see any problem with the lèse majesté law.

'I've never seen Article 112 being used as a political tool, and over 99 percent of politicians have no problem with the law,' he said. 'Thailand still has a monarch as head of state and a unifying force, so we should have the law to protect the institution.' However, Sulak Sivirak, an outspoken commentator who has been charged with lèse-majesté in the past, says that 'none of Thailand’s political parties can spell out what they mean by constitutional monarchy,' while dismissing the country’s political class as cowardly. According to David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial, a study of Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, the number of cases in Thailand has grown hugely in recent years.

'From 1990 to 2005, there were an average of five to six cases per year,' he said, speaking at Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club last month. Since then, however, he estimates that there have been more than 300 cases, which could be partly accounted for by the law’s provision that allows any citizen to make allegations against another. According to former Thai Prime Minster Anand Panyarachun, who spoke at the same venue a week earlier, the key problem is that the current version of Article 112 allows any Thai to allege that someone insulted the monarchy. Anand headed the National Reform Committee set up after the 2010 anti-Government Red Shirt protests and ensuing street fighting in Bangkok.

There's no definitive headcount of those currently in prison for defaming the members of the Thai Royal Family as covered by Article 112, with Streckfuss estimating that detainees could number over 200. Niran Phitakwatchara of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an independent body established separately from the government, says that the NHRC will request the police and other agencies to provide information on who has been charged under Article 112, in an attempt to get a clear picture of the numbers detained.

One recent high-profile case is against Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University who recently published a letter commenting on a TV interview given by a member of Thailand’s royal family. Other publicized cases include those of Chiranuch Premchaiporn and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul. Chiranuch is director of news and current affairs website Prachatai, and is charged under the Computer Related Crimes Act, not for remarks she made herself, but for not immediately deleting comments posted by third parties on the Prachatai web forum that were allegedly in breach of Article 112. The remainder of her trial has been postponed until later this year, after part of the prosecution hearings took place in February.

Red Shirt supporter Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul remains in jail, despite her initial 2009 conviction being deemed a mistrial during an appeal held this February. Her case has been passed on to the country’s Constitutional Court and a retrial is due to take place later in 2011. Last Friday, Prachatai broke the story that a Thailand-born US citizen had been arrested for insulting Thailand's monarchy. Lerpong Wichaicommart, 54, was charged with using the Internet to spread information that undermines the monarchy, according to Thai authorities.

During last year's Red Shirt anti-government protests, the Thai military produced a convoluted looking chart alleging a widespread anti-royal conspiracy linked to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck is the photogenic figurehead of the opposition Peua Thai party for the current election campaign. The Thai authorities have since backtracked on the alleged conspiracy, saying that the document didn't allege that everyone named was actually plotting against the country's royalty. By Simon Roughneen For The Diplomat, Tokyo

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