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

Reporters Without Borders statement
Christian Science Monitor ...

Thailand 12 January 2009

Is Thailand a new enemy of the Internet?

Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about online free expression in Thailand following the new government’s decision to make monitoring the Internet a priority in order to prevent insults to the monarchy. Ranongrak Suwanchawee, minister of information and communications technology in the government that took over on 15 December, says more that 2,300 websites have been blocked and 400 are being investigated. Nearly 2 million euros (80 million baht) have been earmarked for web filtering.

“We condemn these measures taken by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which represent a grave attack on free expression for the sake of combating a poorly defined crime,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is surprising that this has suddenly become a priority although Internet access is far from being general in Thailand. It is important the government should agree to debate the online activities of the country’s Internet users.”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, was yesterday ordered to appear on 20 January at a Bangkok police station to be charged under the lese majeste law in connection with his book “A Coup for the Rich,” which can be downloaded at no cost from his blog,

An Australian writer from Melbourne, Harry Nicolaides, has been detained on a lese-majeste charge since his arrest on 31 August as he was about to board a flight back to Australia. He used to teach at Mae Fah Luang university in the northern city of Chiang Rai and wrote for magazines and websites. His four requests for provisional release have all been rejected.

Suwanchawee, the new minister of information and communications technology, announced on 29 December that blocking websites that insult the monarchy would be her ministry’s main task. She added that her predecessor in the post was “mistaken in believing that little could be done to control sites originating overseas.”

Two days before that, members of the Democrat Party-led government called for the lese-majeste legislation to be made tougher, while the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, told his officers to make sure there were no attacks on the king. Speaking to more than 800 battalion commanders, he urged each battalion to monitor one to two websites for negative content about the monarchy.

Thailand has 14 million Internet users, which is about 20 per cent of the population. An association called Thai Netizen is to meet the new prime minister tomorrow in order to submit a petition for the defence of online free expression and propose a compromise on this issue. Created at the initiative of lawyer and media specialist Supinya Klangnarong, Thai Netizen groups bloggers and Internet users who campaign for online free expression in Thailand.

When websites are blocked in Thailand, it is done by means of informal requests from the authorities to Internet Service Providers - request without any legal status.

Lese majeste is defined by article 112 of the criminal code, which says that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen or regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Under a cyber-crime law adopted in 2007, the individual records of Internet users must be kept by ISPs for 90 days and can be examined by the authorities without referring to a judge. The police can also confiscate any computer if they suspect it has been used for illegal purposes.


Thais tighten ban on royal slurs

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws are already strict, but a new crackdown on insults has resulted in a spike in arrests, including that of an Australian novelist.

By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the January 12, 2009 edition

Bangkok, Thailand - Three years ago, Harry Nicolaides wrote a novel that he hoped would strip away "the veneer of truth" from Thailand, where he was teaching at the time. Initially, "Verismiltitude" fell well short of its author's ambitions: Only 50 copies were self-published and few were sold. He drifted back to Australia, before returning to Thailand to write and teach.

Today, Mr. Nicolaides sits in a Bangkok jail on charges of lèse-majesté, the offense of insulting Thailand's royal family, in a brief passage in his novel about the private life of an unnamed crown prince. He intends to confess, repent, and seek a royal pardon.

"I've been demonized. I've got to play my role, to plead guilty and accept my sentence," he says.

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws are among the world's strictest, meriting jail terms of three to 15 years. Fear of the laws – as well as genuine veneration – has long drawn a veil over criticism of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, and his family. But a bitter struggle for power that is being waged, in part, in the name of the crown is testing these taboos.

In response, Thai lawmakers and security forces have sought to tighten controls by blocking thousands of websites, arresting activists, and drafting even tougher laws. A lawmaker in the ruling Democrat Party recently proposed raising the maximum jail time for lese-majeste to 25 years. The new government is also creating a 24-hour "war room" to scour the Internet for antiroyal comment.

Police say they are investigating a total of 32 cases of lèse-majesté, the highest number in decades. This includes BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, who was accused last year because of his reporting on Thai politics.

A female Thai activist was recently sentenced to six years in jail over a speech made to supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Another activist is in jail awaiting trial after drawing parallels in a fiery speech between the fate of the Thai monarchy and that of deposed dynasties in Russia, Nepal, and France.

Although it's rare for foreigners to be prosecuted, they aren't exempt. A Swiss man who defaced portraits of the king and queen was sentenced in 2006 to 10 years in jail, then swiftly pardoned and deported. Nicolaides is hoping for the same fast-track release.

Amnesty International is concerned over the rise in lèse-majesté cases here, says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for the organization. It considers people jailed for peacefully expressing their views as prisoners of conscience and has campaigned for the release of Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who has twice been prosecuted for the crime and now faces a new allegation.

In 2005, US-born Bhumibol discussed the law in a speech and said he could accept some criticism. That didn't stop the flow of cases. Defenders of the law say that it's essential to shield the royal family against personal attacks, as it can't sue for defamation.

"If you take a referendum now on this particular issue I'm sure a big majority will think that the law should be there," says Surakiart Satirathai, a former deputy prime minister and Harvard-educated lawyer.

Those on the receiving end, however, argue that the law is a political tool to silence debate. Royalist protesters who shut down Bangkok's airports in November, often invoked the law against opponents.

"The lèse-majesté law has been put there as a deterrent.... [I]t's about telling society there's a line you can't cross," says Jakrapob Penkair, a former cabinet minister who resigned in May after being accused of the crime. He denies any wrongdoing.

The political turmoil has shone a spotlight on the role of the monarchy, with conservatives alleging a plot by Mr. Thaksin and his allies to weaken it. Much of their anxiety centers on the royal succession, as Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the presumed heir, lacks the stature of his father. This explains the desire to keep a lid on public debate, says David Streckfuss, a US expert on lèse-majesté. "It's all within the context of the succession. With this lingering over Thai society, it adds intensity," he says.

Some Thais say privately that protesters who claimed to be fighting to save the crown may actually be undermining the palace's neutrality. The attendance of Queen Sirikit, wife of Bhumibol, at a televised funeral of a royalist protester who died in street violence in October sent a signal of support that inflamed opinions among Thaksin supporters.

In this charged atmosphere, some taboos on discussing royal politicking are falling away, even as law enforcement is hardening. Mr. Jakrapob, a former aide to Thaksin, says his accusers are pushing Thailand in a new direction: "The harder you apply such laws, the faster society will change."

Nicolaides's walk-on role in this drama is as obscure as his book. In 2005, he sent advance copies to the palace and two government ministries, seeking their approval. After receiving no reply, he began to sell the book in Thailand. It was later pulled from stores on the orders of the Ministry of Justice, he says.

Mark Dean, a lawyer in Australia for Nicolaides, says Thai authorities decided at the time not to press charges against the author. He says the case was revived last year in an attempt by the former pro-Thaksin government to show loyalty to the crown. He describes Nicolaides as a "political prisoner."

Denied bail, Nicolaides spends his nights in a holding pen with dozens of other inmates. By day, he writes letters to his family and supporters in Australia and receives visitors. Four months in jail have afforded him time to rue the ironies of his book's theme of truth-seeking in Thai society.

"We think we see the world in front of us, but in fact we see our own prejudices," he says, speaking through a barred window.



Thailand is getting very bad for freedom of speech. The 'government' (if that's what you want to call them) goes after its political enemies using this law, so it has nothing to do with protecting the King. Everyone in Thailand has immense respect for the King (as they should do!) but the fear about saying anything about the royal family is real.

Thailand has SO many problems and laws like this just stop tourists and farangs from coming here. I've been teaching in Thailand for 4 years but plan on leaving in 2 months to go to Japan. I don't want to live in a society that is this restrictive and I caution other Westerners from coming here. Thailand has gone downhill in the last few years and with the fear that is felt here about actually saying what you think, it's not a country anyone who loves freedom of speech would want to live in.

If you want to teach English, go to Korea, Malaysia or Japan instead. More opportunities and not as restrictive as Thailand.