THAILAND: Criminalization of free speech ahead of election 

In May 2011, the government of Thailand announced that the country would go to a national election on July 3. It might have been expected that this announcement would result in a lessening of the threats against, and arrests of, persons trying to exercise free speech. In fact, the opposite is the case. Since the announcement over three weeks ago, the government seems to have gone into overdrive in its efforts to criminalize free speech, shutting down radio stations and ordering the arrest of dissident voices on the pretext that they are anti-royalist.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has paid especially close attention to the continued laying of lese majesty charges for trivial or non-existent offences against the monarchy. The number of cases brought under section 112 of the Criminal Code of Thailand and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act has continuously risen since the 19 September 2006 coup. Within the last three months there has been a further escalation of the criminalization of speech allegedly critical of the monarchy, on which the AHRC has already issued a statement (AHRC-STM-056-2011), as has its sister organization, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC-CWS-17-01-2011), in the UN.

In recent weeks, free expression has become an even more dangerous endeavour in Thailand than it was earlier, as highlighted here by three cases which signal the gravity of the threat not only to the freedom of expression in the short term, but also to human rights more broadly. The first is the case of Mr. Aekkechai Hongkangwan, who has been released on bail; and, the others are the cases of Mr. Joe Gordon and Mr. Somyos Preuksakasemsuk, who remain under detention.

Aekkachai Hongkangwan, age 35, was indicted on 23 May 2011 at the Criminal Court in Bangkok for allegedly disseminating CDs containing a documentary by ABC television and WikiLeaks materials which are offensive to the King, the Queen and the Heir Apparent. He has also been accused of selling CDs without a license. The police arrested Aekkachai on 10 March 2011 at Sanam Luang, after enticing him into selling a CD for 20 baht. The police seized over 100 CDs, a CD burner and 10 copies of WikiLeaks materials. He was released at that time on bail. The Criminal Court has set 11 July 2011 as the date on which evidence examination will begin.

Joe Gordon, age 54, is a Thai-American man who has been arrested on charges of violating section 112. He was arrested in Nakhon Ratchasima on 24 May 2011 for allegedly doing no more than posting a link on his blog to Paul Handley’s unauthorized biography of King Bhumipol, “The King Never Smiles”. The book is banned in Thailand. Prachatai online news reported that his arrest was carried out by a group of 20 officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Ministry of Justice, who came to search his house and seized his money, cellular phone, computer, and hard drive. When the officials arrived, Gordon had just bathed and was only wearing a towel; they would not allow him to get dressed while they searched his house. DSI then transported him from Nakhon Ratchasima, which is in the central northeast of the country, to Bangkok Remand Prison. Reports indicate that the DSI has been investigating his case for nearly two years. Gordon just returned to Thailand last year after living in the United States for the past 30 years.

Somyos Preuksakasemsuk, age 51, is a long-time labour activist who in 2007 began to edit the “Voice of Taksin” magazine, a political publication opposed to the current government. Officials detained him without charge in May 2010, at the time of the protests in Bangkok that ended in bloodshed. After the authorities released Somyos he started a new publication, “Red Power”. The DSI arrested him on a charge under section 112, on 30 April 2011, when he passed through immigration while leading a tour group to Cambodia. The arrest warrant was issued over two months earlier, but the authorities waited to execute it until he tried to cross a national border. The alleged crime stems from an article in an issue of Voice of Taksin, which Somyos edited. In this case, much like in the case against webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, on which the AHRC has established a campaign webpage, Somyos is being prosecuted not for anything he said or did himself, but on the basis of someone else’s writing in a publication he edited. The Criminal Court has denied Somyos’s repeated requests for bail on the basis that he is accused of committing a grave crime against the monarchy and national security and may be a flight risk.

All three of these individuals have had their speech–or rather, others’ speech for which they have been held liable–criminalized because the contents of the speech were allegedly damaging to the monarchy. Two aspects stand out. The first is the use of the monarchy as an avenue through which to charge, prosecute and detain persons who have done no more than exercise a basic right to speak about matters of public and national importance, which should not be off limits to anyone. This problematic use of the law in Thailand, and especially the lese majesty law, has been steadily on the rise since the 2006 coup. The second is the increasing tendency to criminalize speech in Thailand by targeting persons responsible only for the assisting in some small way in the distribution or redistribution of other persons’ opinions: even something as trivial as a website link or a few burned CDs is seemingly enough to land an accused in a tight spot, both in a criminal case and in prison.

Together, what the cases show is that in the lead up to the election next month, not only is speech being increasingly criminalized in Thailand, but so too is the simple circulation of different types of thought; indeed, any types of thought not explicitly or tacitly officially endorsed. Although the precise relationship between the upsurge in targeting of free speech and the upcoming elections is unclear, what is clear is that the continued criminalization of free speech in Thailand makes the prospect of a fair election unlikely, and bodes ill for the longer term progress of the country back towards a meaningful commitment to human rights.

In light of the above, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the government of Thailand for the immediate release of Joe Gordon and Somyos Preuksakasemsuk on bail and for a review of all pending cases under section 112 and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. The AHRC also calls for a firm commitment from the government of Thailand that it will order a cessation of such arrests and will enable, rather than inhibit, the emergence of free speech into the lead up of the election, as well as in its aftermath. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-074-2011
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Chiranuch Premchaiporn (Prachatai)
Issues : Freedom of expression,