After the King’s Death, Thailand’s Skin Is Getting Thinner

After the King’s Death, Thailand’s Skin Is Getting Thinner
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

After the king’s death, the crackdown on Thailand’s civil society has intensified. In a video that captured the gut-wrenching spectacle, a woman is forced to kneel in public before a picture of the king after supposedly posting critical remarks of the late king online.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last week after a 70-year reign, has been largely commended as a prudent and unifying figure that explains Thailand’s political stability and economic success — especially when compared with neighboring countries Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Over the last few years, however, the late king’s name and stature were used to suppress even the slightest forms of government criticism, and, upon his death, the military junta has ramped up criminal investigations on lèse-majesté offenders, with a special task force having been created for the purpose.

Since ascending to power following a coup d’état in 2014, the Thai junta has used the country’s strict lèse-majesté law, or royal defamation law, to punish government critics. Sometimes, lèse-majesté prosecutions crossed the line into absurdity. In 2015, a man was detained for 90 days and faced 37 years in prison for making fun of the king’s favorite pet dog. The real reason behind his arrest, however, was likely the fact that he shared a Facebook post alleging corruption of the military.

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Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
A Thai official, right, shows the way for a mourner who attend a bathing ceremony for Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. Thailand began its first day in 70 years without a king on Friday in a profound state of mourning, with people across the shaken nation dressed in black following the death of the world's longest-reigning monarch. (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)

Another example is the case of Patnaree Chankij, who ran a laundry service in her small flat near Bangkok to make ends meet. Though she led an unremarkable life politically, her son Sirawith is a student leader that campaigned in favor of the “No” option that lost on a recent referendum to approve a new military-backed constitution. In retaliation, Patnaree was charged with “insulting” the royal family and was brought before a military court. If convicted, she could spend the next 15 years of her life in prison. Her crime? Sending a single word, “ja,” which means “yeah” in Thai. The message was in reply to an acquaintance’s message that was deemed offensive to the monarchy.

The all-encompassing article 112 of Thailand’s Penal Code punishes anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent.” Because the elements of the crime are so ill-defined and Thailand’s current government is overtly authoritarian, any legitimate criticism or political satire will be construed as an insult to the royal family.

Each count of lèse-majesté may carry cumulative penalties of three to fifteen years of imprisonment. As a result, sentences of 60 years in prison for insulting the King on Facebook — which may be reduced to 30 if the offender pleads guilty — are part of Thailand’s repressive legal landscape. Unsurprisingly, many lèse-majesté defendants will eventually admit guilt in the hope of receiving a few years instead of a few decades in prison.

Born in Ancient Rome as maiestas or “treason” to punish with death any criticism of the emperor, the crime of lèse-majesté eventually made its way into modern legal systems — under the same name in monarchical countries, and morphing into “seditious libel” in Anglo-Saxon common law-tradition countries, and criminal defamation, “injury” or “calumny” in civil law continental Europe. It then spilled over to the modern world during colonialism, and that’s how, in 1908, it made it to Thailand’s first criminal code.

While today many democracies and constitutional monarchies have lèse-majesté laws on their books, they tend to grow antiquated by disuse and are rarely used as tools to crackdown on dissent.

The story is different with authoritarian regimes that have grown smarter and away from draconian-sounding charges such as treason, sedition or terrorism. From Angola, to Cambodia, to Cuba, overly broad and vague defamation and incitement laws are now the preferred methods of authoritarian regimes around the world.

The extreme cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran aside, Thailand’s cruel and unusual way of enforcing the crime of lèse-majesté is the world’s leading example of undisguised speech repression. The crime both penalizes any government criticism that may be arbitrarily found “insulting” by an abusive military government, and carries an unreasonable and disproportionately long prison sentence.

Since taking over through a coup d’état in 2014, the Thai junta has used this type criminal defamation law in the name of the then-ailing king to conveniently swipe out dissent in the country. Before the junta took power, only two ongoing lèse-majesté prosecutions were recorded. The number has since skyrocketed.

After the king’s death, the crackdown on Thailand’s civil society has intensified. In a video that captured the gut-wrenching spectacle, a woman is forced to kneel in public before a picture of the king after supposedly posting critical remarks of the late king online. She will surely face lèse-majesté charges.

One would hope that Crown Prince Maha, who is holding off his coronation for a year in mourning, could put a break to the junta’s abusive practice. But two things make us pessimistic. One, the prince once promoted the jailing of his ex-wife’s parents on lèse-majesté charges. Secondly, his nakedly erotic lifestyle invites public criticism in a way his dad’s private life never did. So things in Thailand may only get worse after his coronation.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok, Thailand, May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Editor: Edward White


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