Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thailand's lese-Majeste Witchhunt

Concern rising over government's curbs on political expression

Thailand’s growing curbs on freedom of speech have seen a grandfather sentenced to twenty years in jail for insulting the country’s monarchy, while a U.S citizen awaits a possible similar fate in a ruling due tomorrow.

Last month Ampon Tangnoppakul, 61 was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of insulting Queen Sirikit in four sms texts sent to an official working for Thailand’s former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva.

Ampon’s crestfallen wife Rossamarin spoke to Asia Sentinel on Monday in a coffee shop near her home in Samut Prakarn in eastern Bangkok. Her jailed husband, she said, “is still very stressed by everything and gets sick often.” In court last month, Ampon claimed innocence and his family insist that he does not even know how to send mobile phone text messages.

The number of lèse-majesté charges has grown almost exponentially in recent years, though the exact numbers of those charged and convicted are not available. Some estimates say that the caseload has tripled over five years, to 478 charges in 2010. Statistics obtained by The Associated Press, which came from Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General, show that 36 cases were sent for prosecution in 2010. That is a doubling of numbers since 2005 and up from just one in 2000.

Ampon’s conviction has spurred some public and online support. A peaceful march seeking his release is planned for next Saturday, and a Facebook drive headed by Singapore-based academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, entitled ‘Thailand’s fearlessness”, has generated hundreds of supporters. The campaign emulates a prize-winning display by photographer James Mackay, honouring Burma’s political prisoners.

Earlier on Monday, Rossamarin and millions of Thais watched as a frail-looking and wheelchair-bound King Bhumibol Adulyedej made a rare public appearance as tens of thousands of pink and yellow clad Thais chanted ‘Long live the King”, as the long-serving monarch made his way from the riverside hospital where he has stayed since September 2009, to the famous Grand Palace on the other side of the Chao Praya river that weaves through the vast city.

The main focus of the King’s speech at the palace was to exhort Thailand’s politicians to set aside differences in dealing with the aftermath of the country’s recent flooding crisis, which has left over 600 people dead. Water management has been an ongoing focus for the King’s public pronouncements over the years, and he has in the past made various recommendations to Thailand’s governments on how to pre-empt floods and droughts.

Monday morning’s blanket TV coverage had a poignant and revealing moment, however, when attempting to turn to the second sheet of his public speech, the monarch fumbled, and was momentarily seen receiving assistance from Crown Princess Sirindhorn. TV coverage then hurriedly panned over the assembled crowd at the sun-lit Grand Palace – an assembly of Government representatives, soldiers and diplomats – before reverting to the King a few seconds later as he resumed his address.

Wearing pink – like thousands of other Thais last Monday – Rossamarin said that “our family always celebrated the King’s birthday like other ordinary people”. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned since 1946, and his 84th birthday – marking the seventh 12-year cycle of his life – is deemed auspicious in Thailand’s numerologically-infused public symbolism. Donning pink is an astrological reference to the King’s age and is a mass ‘get well soon’ wish for the monarch, while yellow is the standard color for Thailand’s monarchy. Rossamarin’s husband’s case – like that of Joe Gordon, a U.S. citizen born in Thailand as Lerpong Wichaikhamma who is currently under arrest after a lese-majeste charge – are seen as litmus tests of Thailand’s commitment to freedom of speech. As the King ages and talk of a succession to the much-less popular and influential Crown Prince grows, there appears to be a similarly-growing determination by Thai royalists to shut down any criticism of the “institution”, as the monarchy is sometimes called, in a country that often prefers euphemism to straight talk.

A verdict in Gordon’s case is due on Dec. 8 in Bangkok’s Criminal Court. The charges center around The King Never Smiles, an internationally-acclaimed biography of King Bhumibol Adulyedej by former Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Paul Handley that is proscribed in Thailand. The accused is said to have translated excerpts of the book into Thai and then posted the clippings online while living in the US.

Perhaps with the Gordon case in mind, the US State Department issued a statement saying that “The United States government has the utmost respect for the Thai monarchy”, but urging Thailand “to ensure that freedom of expression is respected and we’re troubled by recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards on freedom of expression”.

The Peua Thai government, which Yingluck heads, came to office amid speculation that it might try to amend or relax the lese-majeste laws. Such changes would be in keeping with demands from some supporters of her Pheu Thai party, which is linked to the redshirt protest movement that occupied various locations in downtown Bangkok in 2010.

To understand the government’s apparent reluctance to modernize Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, some quick background is instructive. After royalist protests in 2006, Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was ousted as prime minister by a military putsch. Despite Thaksin’s proxy party winning a subsequent election in 2007 (as it did earlier in 2011), more royalist protests ensued, culminating in what was effectively a judicial coup in December 2008, allowing the royalist-linked Democrat Party assume office without winning an election.

Royalists alleged that Thaksin, a populist who remains the only Thai premier to win successive elections – was fostering a cult of personality and setting himself up as a rival to the king for the affection of ordinary Thais. Thaksin is now in exile – or a fugitive in many eyes – after fleeing Thailand in 2008 due to corruption charges he regards as trumped-up and politicised.

However the current government appears to be exceeding even the restrictions proposed by some people close to the monarchy. A high-profile new book on the life of the king, published just before his Dec. 5 birthday, featured the monarch’s own comments from 2005 that he was not above criticism. One of the main backers of the book, royalist-leaning former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, told journalists that the lèse-majesté laws should be amended to remove the provision that allows any citizen make a lèse-majesté claim against another person, and added that any misuse of the law risked damaging the monarchy.

However both the current government and royalist hardliners appear oblivious to such pleas for caution, with threats to block Twitter and Facebook after royalists condemned the popular social networking sites as possible conduits for perceived anti-monarchy material.

Perhaps not appreciating the irony, Mallika Boonmeetrakool. a spokeswoman for the opposition Democrat Party, went on a Twitter and Facebook offensive, saying such sites and others such as YouTube should be blocked if they fail to remove content perceived as offensive to the throne. Thailand’s authorities are currently in discussions with Facebook about curbing lese-majeste content on the social networking site, which has almost 13 million Thailand-based subscribers according to socialbakers, a website that measures global social networking usage.

Yingluck’s government has established a ‘war room’ to combat lese-majeste, and, following on from that regression, Information and Communications Technology Minister Anudit Nakorntab recently warned Thais not to click “like” or “share” next to Facebook postings possibly offensive to the monarchy, warning that foreigners who committed lese-majeste could be arrested if they visit Thailand.

But for Rossamarin, Thailand’s growing witch-hunt against those deemed to have insulted the country’s monarchy throws up the stark possibility her husband will spend the rest of his life in jail. ”Everybody is just so sad for our family,” she said. “We never thought this would happen to us.” Asia Sentinel

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