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Thailand: Lèse majesté law cannot be reformed, it must be abolished

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

May 27, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The lèse majesté law [making it illegal to "insult" Thailand's royalty] cannot be reformed into a democratic law any more than a military dictatorship can be reformed or amended into a “democratic military dictatorship”. The lèse majesté law is fundamentally against the freedom of expression and Democracy. It cannot be reformed. It has to be abolished.

It is encouraging to see that the severe problem of lèse majesté is being openly discussed in Thailand today. This follows the massive increase in lèse majesté cases since the 2006 military coup and the recent cases of Ajarn Surachai, Khun Somyot, Ajarn Somsak and the use of lèse majesté against leaders of the Red Shirts. The fact that someone like Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister under a military dictatorship in 1991, is forced to say that the use of this law is “problematic” is a sign that even the royalist establishment is now very worried about the rising republican sentiment in Thailand.

But there is no need to compromise on lèse majesté with the likes of Anand, or even with Ajarn Sulak, who wants to make changes to lèse majesté in order to protect the monarchy. Ajarn Sulak is of course entitled to his views, but so too are those who want to drastically reduce the political use of the monarchy or even to abolish it all together. It is wrong to say that only royalists have a legitimate right to speak out against lèse majesté or that some lèse majesté prisoners are more deserving of support than others, as Amnesty International maintains. In a genuine democracy, it cannot be a crime to advocate that the head of state should be democratically elected and all those in jail for expressing political views in a peaceful manner must be recognised as being unjustly in prison.

In Western democracies that have monarchies, whether or not old laws about the monarchy remain on the statute books, citizens have the right to openly criticise the monarchy and the royal family and they often do so. In these countries and in Thailand, libel laws seek to protect people from being slandered. So there is no excuse for a special law to protect the monarchy from criticism. Any Thai citizen could sue someone for libel if they felt that they were slandered.

Those who are for maintaining lèse majesté in Thailand in an amended form, or those like Anand who are against any changes, can only hold up the limp excuse that “Thailand is different”. But Thailand is unfortunately not unique. Brutal dictatorships exist all over the world. Just like in Thailand, regimes in Syria and Yemen, gun down pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets. In Singapore, writers are imprisoned for criticising the establishment. In Burma, North Korea or China, those who advocate democracy are put in prison. There is not even anything unique about the Thai establishment claiming “Thai uniqueness” in justifying the repression. All dictatorships do the same.

Another excuse of those who advocate reforming or amending lèse majesté is that they believe that they stand a better chance of convincing the corrupt and brutal generals, politicians and top civil servants to accept some minor changes if they don’t “go too far”. But that is like asking a gang of robbers not to “rob too much”. It is still robbery. In this case the robbery of democracy and human rights.

Nearly all those who now sit on the National Human Rights Commission committee which is looking into lèse majesté are people who believe that I had no democratic right to write an academic book criticising the 2006 military coup. In this book I questioned whether the head of state should protect the constitution and an elected government from a military coup. I criticised the king’s anti-wealth distribution ideas. Dr Niran, who heads the committee, tried to get me banned from speaking about it at Ubon Rajatanee University. Others shied away from coming to my defence. My brother and ex-senator sent me an SMS after I gave a press conference denouncing lèse majesté. He wrote that “no one can help you now”. Many members of the committee spoke on royalist PAD [People's Alliance for Democracy] platforms. Dr Niran even called for the king to overthrow the elected TRT government [of Thaksin Shinawatra]. It is difficult to see what progress this committee will make. It is difficult to see how any reformed or amended lèse majesté law will provide Thai citizens with the right to openly and critically examine the monarchy in the way Western European citizens can.

Lèse majesté in Thailand is used to support military coups and dictatorships. The monarchy is constantly used by authoritarian powers in Thailand to justify their actions and the monarchy has never spoken out against injustice and the cold-blooded killing of civilians. People like Eke Hongkangwarn or Somyot Pruksakasemsuk are in prison for distributing facts. Eke is charged with lèse majesté for distributing CDs of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. This documentary shows the severely sexist and abusive behaviour of the Thai crown prince. Ake is also charged with distributing the Wikileaks cable that exposes that at least one member of the Privy Council thinks that it would be “better” if the prince was dead. Ajarn Somsak is facing lèse majesté for questioning the political role of one of the princesses. The list of those faced with jail or who are actually in jail goes on and on ...

No one should face charges, be punished or be in jail for speaking their mind about Thai political institutions. This is the line that must be drawn in the sand to defend freedom of speech and build democracy in Thailand. It means that lèse majesté must be abolished and all political prisoners freed.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who have an interest in Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. Giles' website is at http://redthaisocialist.com/.]

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