FCCT and lese majeste

25 05 2011

PPT has received a report from a correspondent who attended the packed house event on lese majeste at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on 24 May 2011. There is background here and at Bangkok Pundit.

The speakers were: independent scholar and lese majeste expert David Streckfuss, Asia researcher for Thailand, Myanmar and for emergencies for Amnesty International Benjamin Zawacki, sub-committee on civil and political rights at the National Human Rights Commission Dr. Niran Pithakwatchara, and the well-known and always controversial royalist and Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa. After they spoke there was a long question time, with some pretty pointed questioning from a range of journalists and activists, Thai and foreign.

Because the event was over more than two hours, this post is a summary of some elements of the discussion and questions, not a summary of all things said. One thing that needs to be said is that there was a little boundary pushing, so it will be interesting to see if there is any political fallout.

Streckfuss was first, speaking of the lese majeste law (Article 112), changes to the law in 1956 and 1976, and providing an overview of cases and convictions in recent years. His estimate was that some 200+ are probably incarcerated on lese majeste convictions at the moment.

He was followed by Zawacki, who despite presenting an account of AI’s position on lese majeste that was meant to suggest continuity, concern and activism, essentially outlined a new position. He said that everyone on lese majeste charges and/or convicted is considered a political prisoner (tell that to the U.S. State Department!) and that if there is no evidence of inciting violence or “violent words” or “intent,” then each person convicted is then a prisoner of conscience. This is a new statement on lese majeste. The most recent AI country report on Thailand concentrated on the Computer Crimes Act and not lese majeste. AI, and Zawacki in particular, have been under enormous pressure form activists and bloggers (PPT included) to come up with a credible position on lese majeste. Maybe they have, but see below and this interview with Streckfuss, where this deserves quotation:

“The main question now is how will Amnesty International make up for lost time and reclaim a modicum of respect from many activists and academic groups in Thailand — and abroad — who have quite rightly criticized the organization for taking a more consistent and forceful stand on the issue of lese majeste which, after all, as a matter of the right to freedom of expression, has traditionally been a core issue for Amnesty.”

Dr. Niran followed and provided an overview of his concerns as a NHRC commissioner and specifically of his sub-committee’s work that began last week, focusing on Most of what he said was covered in PPT’s post on the sub-committee. He expressed his strong commitment to examining the recent cases of Somyos Prueksakasemsuk and Somsak Jeamteerasakul. He made it clear that the lese majeste law infringes on human rights and added the usual bit about the king having said that the law hurts him too.

It might be added that this statement by the king was issued before the major political crisis and huge spike in cases and convictions.

Sulak was the final speaker. He was clear that the lese majeste law is dangerous for the monarchy, which he wants to preserve. He was also clear that Somsak’s case is a ridiculous beat-up and was expressive and daring in his criticism of people involved and the subject of Somsak’s open letters (here and here). He was firm in his view that Somsak is proposing meaningful reform. Sulak wants transparency and openness in the discussion of the monarchy and lese majeste. He asked if any political party was prepared to say what kind of democracy it wanted for Thailand.

The questions from the audience elicited some interesting responses and, as expected, Zawacki and AI got quite a bit of implied and explicit criticism. He made it clear that transparency and openness were not part of AI’s approach on lese majeste. He repeatedly stated that he would not divulge AI’s strategy. He explained that AI had not done much on lese majeste in earlier years because there were so few cases. That doesn’t explain the lack of action or a reasonable human rights position from 2006 until the evening of 24 May 2011. He tried to say that AI had done plenty, but this is fudging and fibbing.

He made a nasty attack on a person who asked him to explain his comment that the king had done much for human rights in Thailand. He claimed that the question said more about the person asking it than about Zawacki himself. For this correspondent, Zawacki was essentially using the tactics of those who make lese majeste charges. He invoked the spectre of disloyalty. It was a cheap shot and not something that should ever be expected of someone meant to be involved with human rights.

If AI is to ever resurrect its already shattered mantle in Thailand, the next step is to remove Zawacki and appoint someone who is able to address vital human rights issues with transparency and openness.

There were some interesting small points, not necessarily attributable to particular speakers. One was the use of the term “democracy with a constitutional monarchy/the king under the constitution” rather than the usual “democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.” Another was a comment that Thailand had a proper constitutional monarchy from 1932 to 1947, and we need to return to that.

Rather than summarize more of the question and answer session, we may conclude with a comments by Streckfuss and Sulak. He refers to a rising abolitionist campaign (along with a reformist line of the panellists). Streckfuss sees this as something that could not have happened even a few years ago. He also referred to a rising consciousness, political activism and political courage associated with lese majeste. Sulak added that for reformists, the time to act is now, for it might be too late for the institution if reforms are made too slowly.

This post doesn’t do justice to the discussion, which was long, detailed and revealing. Fair-minded people would see reform as more or less mandatory at this time. The question is whether the die-hard royalists see it that way.



4 responses

12 06 2011
2 11 2017
Thailand’s future politics II | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] (As a former representative of Amnesty International, he spent a lot of energy arguing that the reign of the dead king promoted human rights! He and AI neglected lese majeste in […]

2 11 2017
Thailand’s future politics II | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] (As a former representative of Amnesty International, he spent a lot of energy arguing that the reign of the dead king promoted human rights! He and AI neglected lese majeste in […]

23 11 2021
Toxic turncoats and the barking mad | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] when its representative in Bangkok was Benjamin Zawacki. He spent a lot of energy arguing that the reign of the dead king promoted human rights. He seemed to hold sway and AI received fierce criticism. More of less until Zawacki departed AI in […]

%d bloggers like this: