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/.]