Thailand: Activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn faces arrest for `insulting' monarchy (now with excerpts from Coup for the Rich)

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Readers of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal are urged to send letters of protest and calling for all charges against Giles Ji Ungpakorn to be dropped. Send them to the Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at Government House, Bangkok, Thailand,  fax number +66 (0) 29727751. Please also write letters of protest to the ambassador of the Royal Thai embassy in your own country.

By John Berthelsen

Asia Sentinel -- January 12, 2009 -- Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University and a well-known socialist activist, has been ordered to appear at a Bangkok police station to be charged under the country's stiff lèse majesté laws for insulting the country's monarchy.

Ungpakorn has written a series of flame-throwing articles which have appeared in Asia Sentinel and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, among other publications, charging that a royalist and anti-democratic alliance made up of what he called the "fascist" People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the military, the police, the judiciary, most middle-class academics and especially Queen Sirikit of perpetrating a royalist coup that kicked two democratically elected governments out of power.

As Thailand emerges gingerly from two years of political chaos that began with an September 2006 military coup against the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the government is increasingly using lèse majesté laws, the most restrictive known anywhere in the world, to stifle dissent. Since the 1970s, the laws have grown progressively stricter. Although the law is ostensibly designed to protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family, it is increasingly being used to go after government critics, warranted or not. Charges have been filed against several individuals including the BBC correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head, for reporting on the political situation.

Ungpakorn said he had not been told which articles or speeches had resulted in the charge against him, but later said he was being charged over his book, A Coup for the Rich and added that he is prepared to fight any charges "in order to defend academic freedom, freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand". The summons is the result of a complaint filed by a Special Branch [political police] police officer, Lt Col. Pansak Sasana-anund

The book was withdrawn from sale by Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities. However, Ungpakorn said all 1000 copies had sold out. He directed readers to his blog and the International Socialist Tendency website in Britain, where the book is available in its entirety. ``I encourage people to read my book and judge for themselves whether I should face criminal charges over this book. Relevant passages can be found in chapter 1, pages 15, 23-27, and Chapter 2. My most recent academic paper on the monarchy appears on my blog. It argues that the monarchy is not all powerful and that political and military factions claim royal legitimacy in order to boost their own power and interests. Their recent actions may be bringing the institution of the monarchy into crisis because they have created an image of the monarchy being directly involved in politics. I presented a Thai version of this paper at the National Thai Political Science Conference at Chulalongkorn University in December 2008.''

"The monarchy has been quoted and used by various political factions in Thailand to legitimise their actions", he wrote. "The most notable cases are the 19th September 2006 military coup and the illegal protests by the yellow-shirted PAD, which included shutting down the international airports. Lèse majesté charges in Thailand are notorious for being used by different political factions to attack their opponents. Many believe that this law is actually counter-productive to defending the monarchy. This is why it is very important that political scientists attempt to analyse the real role and nature of the Thai monarchy in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy."

The Committee to Protect Journalists has protested the use lèse majesté laws against the press, particularly against BBC reporter Head. But use of the laws goes well byond just journalism. In September, Australian novelist Harry Nicolaides, 41, was arrested at Bangkok's airport on charges that he had defamed the royal family in a 2005 novel when he tried to fly out of Bangkok to Australia. He said he was unaware of the arrest warrant. He remains in jail despite four appeals.

The blogger Bangkok Pundit in November wrote that police are handling another 30 lèse majesté cases including one against social critic Sulak Sivalak, who was arrested at his home in Khon Kaen in November for remarks he had made the previous December. Among the most prominent charged was former minister in the Prime Minister's Office Jakrapob Penkair, who in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in August of 2007, criticised Thailand's patronage system and particularly criticised Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, a former prime minister and army general who is particularly close to the king.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Thailand 124th among 173 countries for restricting press freedom, recently expressing concern because 2300 internet websites were blocked in 2008, in most cases for lèse majesté. Ranongrak Suwanchawee, appointed information minister in the new Democrat Party government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, said on December 29, 2008, that blocking lèse-majesté websites would be her ministry's main task.

Ungpakorn is an activist with the socialist Turn Left Thailand group, which is affiliated with International Socialist Tendency. He comes from a family with an illustrious history of protest. His father, Puey Ungpakorn, joined the Free Thai movement in the United Kingdom and parachuted into northern Thailand in 1944 but was captured by the Japanese. Later, Puey became governor of the post-war Bank of Thailand before returning to the faculty of economics at Thammasat University. Puey Ungpakorn was ultimately branded a communist and destroyer of unity by the political right. He resigned as rector at Thammasat in protest against the October 1976 massacre of students by rightists and was forced to flee the country.

Press statement by Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn regarding lèse-majesté charges

January 13, 2009 -- As you know, I have been summonsed to Pathumwan police station for questioning at 10.00 am on Tuesday 20th January 2009. I have been accused of lèse-majesté. The charge arises from my book A Coup for the Rich, published in 2007. Those found guilty of lèse-majesté face a heavy prison sentence.

1. The lèse-majesté Law in Thailand does not allow the for the proper functioning of a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy, since it restricts freedom of speech and expression and does not allow for public accountability and transparency of the institution of the Monarchy. The Thai population are encouraged to believe that we live under an "ancient system of Monarchy", a cross between a Sakdina, Absolute and Constitutional Monarchy system.

2. The use of the lèse-majesté Law in Thailand is an attempt to prevent any discussion about one of the most important institutions. It attempts to prevent critical thought and encourage a system of "learning by rote" among the population. For example, once the Monarch has given his blessing to the "Sufficiency Economy", we are all supposed to accept it and praise it without question. Luckily, this type of brain-washing does not work very well in Thai society, for a society which cannot openly discuss economic and political policies will remain backward and under-developed.

3. The Military often claim that they are the "defenders of the Constitutional Monarchy", yet the Thai Military has a long history of making un-constitutional coups. These are often "legitimised" by claiming to protect the Monarchy. The 19th September 2006 coup is a good example. Rather than defending the Monarchy as such, the military sought to legitimise themselves by referring to the Monarch. The lèse-majesté Law is thus used as a tool by the military, and other authoritarian elites, in order to protect their interests instead of preserving the Constitutional Monarchy. The promotion of an image that the Monarchy is all powerful (an unconstitutional image), is part of this self-legitimisation by the military and other forces.

4. Constitutional Monarchs in most democratic countries enjoy stability while being subjected to public scrutiny. Therefore we must conclude that the Thai lèse-majesté laws are not in place in order to bring stability to the institution, but serve another purpose.

5. Those who charge me with lèse-majesté are doing so because I have shown a principled and unyielding opposition to military coups and dictatorships. Many other activists are facing similar charges for the same reason. We must not forget their plight. We must wage an international and national political campaign to defend democratic rights in Thailand and for the abolition of the Lese Majeste law.

My book A Coup for the Rich

I wrote and published this book a few months after the 19th September 2006 military coup. The book was an attempt to write an academic analysis of the Thai political crisis from a pro-democracy point of view. While constantly criticising the Thaksin government's gross abuses of human rights, I argued that the coup was totally unjustified. I argued that those who supported the coup: the military, the PAD, disgruntled businessmen, neo-liberals and conservative civil servants, were united in their contempt for the poor. They have no faith in democracy because they believe that the poor do not deserve the right to vote. They also hate Thaksin's party because it could win elections, while they could not.

Another important theme in my book is the questioning of the perceived "fact" that the crisis was a result of a dispute between the Monarchy and Thaksin. It is this argument of mine that may have enraged the military most of all, since they wished to use Royal legitimacy for their coup. I also attempted to stimulate a discussion about whether a Constitutional Monarchy should defend the Constitution and Democracy. In another section of the book I tried to paint an historical account of the Monarchy and to argue that it is now a modern institution, not a feudal one.

I have now sold all 1000 copies of A Coup for the Rich, but it is available to download from my blog and from the International Socialist Tendency website in the UK. Just after publication, the book was withdrawn from sale by Chulalongkorn University bookshop and later by Thammasart University bookshop.

I reject totally the accusation that I have committed any crime by writing and publishing this book. I am prepared to fight any lèse-majesté charges in order to defend academic freedom, the freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand.

Since this accusation was filed by a Special Branch officer, the present Democrat Party government should be questioned about its role in this and many other cases. The new prime minister has stated that he wants to see a firm crackdown on les majesty and many recent cases have been filed by the police.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

January 13, 2009

What you can do

1. Write a letter of protest/concern to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Government House, Bangkok, Thailand. Fax number +66 (0) 29727751

2. Write a letter of protest/concern to the Ambassador, The Royal Thai Embassy, in your country.

3. Demand that Amnesty International take up all lèse-majesté cases in Thailand.

4. Demand the abolition of the lèse-majesté law.

Excerpts from Giles Ji Ungpakorn's Coup for the Rich