THAILAND: Time to talk openly about lese-majesty

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has closely followed with growing concern the increasing number of lese-majesty cases being filed against people from all walks of life in Thailand for written comments on the royal family. At present, dozens of persons are known to be facing charges or have already been convicted of the offence, which is the equivalent of treason against the crown. They include citizens of Thailand and foreigners, journalists and academics, bloggers and web board discussants. At least two are presently imprisoned and another has fled abroad, rightly fearing that he would not obtain a fair trial. The number is small in terms of the total number of people passing through the criminal justice system in Thailand, but it is large for the nature of the offence and particularly given that the purpose of these cases is to frighten other persons from making similar remarks and thus stifle debate about a key institution of the state at a time that an army-backed unelected government is doing everything possible to further undermine the already battered rule of law in Thailand. 

Indeed, many others could conceivably have charges brought against them at any time, given the insignificant comments on the monarchy that landed some of these persons in the courts, and also given the characteristic of lese-majesty in Thailand that allows for any private citizen to bring the charge against another person. According to some information, in addition to the proceedings brought through the formal inquiries of government agencies, certain members of the police force and others have taken it upon themselves to hunt for contents in publications and websites that may give rise to an allegation of lese-majesty and thereafter initiate charges. Even more disturbingly, a new website apparently set up on the parliamentary server is calling upon citizens to inform upon anyone whom they believe has criticized the monarchy. 

The rising incidence of lese-majesty cases, coupled with the ham-fisted attempts at Internet censorship of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology and the continued widespread use of criminal defamation all speak to the extremely regressive trend in political behaviour and social discourse on important national issues in Thailand since the 2006 military coup. From the day after that event, the AHRC warned that failure to strongly oppose the takeover simply out of dislike for the unsavoury deposed government of Thaksin Shinawatra would invite the reactionary and ultra-right-wing forces back into power that dominated politics in Thailand up to the 1990s. Regrettably, the events of late-2008 have demonstrated just how much ground extremist ideologues and lawless elements have gained thanks to the army’s reassertion of its prerogative to have the final say on what goes in Thailand. The recent shocking treatment of boatloads of people captured by the country’s navy off the western shoreline and the pathetic official denials and obfuscations it generated is yet another illustration of the extent to which these backwards-looking forces have entrenched themselves at all levels in the present administration. 

The current spate of lese-majesty cases is but one manifestation of this turn away from the nascent democratic and social developments of the 1990s and back towards the outdated authoritarianism of earlier decades, but it is also one that goes to the heart of how the plotters and strategists responsible for this turn for the worse want to represent their state.  It is clear that the charging and convicting of persons in Thailand with lese-majesty is not, as they would disingenuously have it, an issue of cultural relativity, but one of social control. It is not about encouraging respect, but stifling dissent. 

One of the enormous changes between the old Thailand and the new is in the field of technology and communications. It is no coincidence that many of the persons now accused of lese-majesty have been accused of it because of their use of computers. As domestic media outlets are cowed or reduced to serving as propaganda mouthpieces for this party or that alliance, it is not surprising that more and more people are turning to alternative sources of news and commentary on the Internet and through other forms of fast, modern communication. No matter how much the authorities try, they will find it impossible to stop these exchanges, short of shutting off these technologies completely, and the more that they try to do this the more likely they are to provoke more persons to access and use them. 

Notwithstanding, it is clear that in the coming period it will be increasingly difficult and risky for people in Thailand to speak openly, evenly and honestly about a wide range of issues, including the role and activities of the royal family in their country, and even more importantly, about the work of the people who claim to represent it and act on its behalf. At a time that these risks are posed not only by officialdom but also by the self-appointed vigilantes who in the last year dominated social and political space and committed innumerable crimes apparently without fear of prosecution, it would be foolhardy of anyone in Thailand to think that they are today living in a society that tolerates, let alone encourages, free expression and opinion. 

Under such circumstances, a special responsibility falls on persons and agencies located outside of a country to speak out directly and clearly in the interests of those inside who cannot. It is for this reason that the Asian Human Rights Commission unequivocally condemns, as a matter of principle and without regard to other factors, the application of lese-majesty in Thailand in its current form as contrary to international human rights standards. It calls upon the Government of Thailand, through the offices of the public prosecutor, to at once cease all proceedings pending against persons charged with lese-majesty, and speed arrangements to see that those persons already convicted are promptly released from prison. It also demands that the futile censorship of websites that government functionaries deem offensive to the royal institution cease. Failure to do these things, the Government of Thailand must understand, will only retard the prospects for recovery of its damaged political life and international reputation in the wake of the fiascos in 2008, and will in the long term only make addressing the deep systemic flaws in its country’s institutional and social fabric that much more difficult to mend. 

The AHRC also takes this opportunity to make a special call to all concerned persons and organisations outside of Thailand. First, it congratulates those that have already taken up the issue of lese-majesty and strongly encourages them to continue their efforts, be they through the mainstream media or other lobbies. Second, it urges all those that have not yet done so to make statements, begin campaigns and publish and speak widely on it as a matter of urgency. As in the present circumstances an intelligent and unhindered debate on lese-majesty and related concerns is impossible in Thailand itself, for the time-being it falls upon those working and residing outside the country to break open the many heavy silences that are hanging around the topic there until such a time that people in the country are able to do the same without fear of arrest and jail, or worse. This appeal goes out especially to fellow human rights organisations that have not yet spoken up on this matter. If we are unable or unwilling to say with clarity and certainty that a law is wrong and those persons prosecuted under it have been unjustly treated then we shall soon find ourselves unable or unwilling to speak with clarity and certainty about anything at all.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-028-2009
Countries : Thailand,