The Bangkok Post on lese majeste

28 08 2011

The Bangkok Post has an editorial on Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung’s recent statement that the new government will crackdown on lese majeste on the internet. The editorial demonstrates some quite ridiculous contortions that are demanded of a media that wants to be royalist but claims to be liberal.

Initially, an opponent of the draconian lese majeste and computer crimes laws might be cheered by the headline: “War room not needed to defend His Majesty.” But that would be a mistake. The editorial is wholly supportive of the laws. It begins:

The tone was disturbing in Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung’s statement last week in which he announced his intention to ”crack down” on websites with lese majeste content and set up a ”war room” to deal with such websites. The statement serves to give the impression that up until now enforcement of the lese majeste law over the internet has been lax, which has certainly not been the case. In signalling that the new government is going to get tough on lese majeste offenders, Mr Chalerm should clarify what exactly he means to do differently than the previous government.

Of course, the Post is correct in stating that the enforcement of lese majeste has not be “lax.” In fact, it has been zealous. The Abhisit Vejjajiva government vastly expanded the hunt for those it deemed guilty of disloyalty and, hence, of posing a threat to its conception of national security. This involved huge, taxpayer-funded, expansions and inventions of government units to hunt the disloyal, jailing several hundred, massive censorship, the use of vigilantes and much more.

One stimulus for Chalerm’s statement may be the “deal” some claim has been done between Thaksin Shinawatra, the military and the palace. Given that there is no real evidence for this claim, it is probably safer to bet that the new Puea Thai-led government is feeling pushed to demonstrate its loyalty to the crown by the Democrat Party and the cabal of royalists who oppose the government. As they snipe about red shirts and disloyalty, the new government must be seen to be loyal. The Post should acknowledge that Chalerm was responding to Democrat Party questions and accusations of disloyalty.

The Post continues:

Probably all would agree that the Abhisit government was extremely diligent in its duty to uphold the monarchy, as is proper. No loyal Thai opposes penalties for anyone who willfully disrespects the monarchy.

And by this statement, the editorial writer at the Post writer joins with other royalists in pointing to loyalty to the monarchy as being the measure of loyalty to Thailand. In fact, by making this statement, the Post rhetorically casts out those who might want to be critical of the monarchy, for any criticism is  likely to be deemed willful disrespect.

The Post editorial then turns to the “problem”:

The problem is in the stiffness of the penalties, up to 15 years in prison for a single violation, the potential to use charges of lese majeste as a political weapon and the broadness of the 2007 Computer Crime Act.

There is, it seems, nothing wrong with the law except the heavy penalties it imposes. Of course, the law has to exist for the Post because this great monarchy that sparkles with brilliance has to be protected. But the penalties are just a little too harsh. The Post neglects to mention that 15 years for lese majeste refers to each charge. There are many on several charges who face many years more than this in jail. Darunee Charnchoensilpakul was sentenced to 18 years in jail on lese majeste charges on 28 August 2009. The trial, conducted in a closed court, saw here received 6 years for each of three comments she made in a political rally. Her case demonstrates that the Post’s claim that there is “the potential to use charges of lese majeste as a political weapon” is misleading. A quick look at PPT’s pages on Pending Cases and Convictions will show that virtually all of the cases listed there are political.

The Post does admit that the laws have been used “to shut down or block tens of thousands of websites without clear proof of wrongdoing being furnished. It seems extremely unlikely that all of these websites were in violation of lese majeste laws.” The Post should add that almost all of these tens of thousands of websites were blocked by the Democrat Party-led government using the laws for political gain.

The Post claims that the “number of legal cases related to lese majeste rose from 28 in 2008 to 76 in 2010.” This is misleading for case numbers do not match the number of charges laid. For example, a single case can have multiple people accused and multiple charges. In addition, figures from the Office of the Judiciary indicate that 478 charges of lese majeste went for prosecution in 2010. This is triple the number reported in 2009. According to the same source, the charges of lese majeste sent for prosecution in 2010 was up about 1,500% over 2005 (the year before the royalist military coup). Royalist governments have repeatedly and increasingly used lese majeste charges to silence political oppositions. The worst offender was the royalist government led by Abhisit and the Democrat Party.

At least the Post recognizes that the Computer Crimes Act is “vague” and “serves as a sword over the head of website operators and discourages freedom of expression of any type for fear that something on their sites could be construed as being against the monarchy.”

Then the Post turns to the sad case of Joe Gordon. remarkably, the Bangkok Post considers Joe guilty even before he has gone to trial. It states that Joe is the person “who translated a controversial book.” PPT has no idea of Joe’s computer activities, but we believe his claims of innocence and the fact that he is charged should at least make the Post very much more careful in how it writes. In this editorial they accept the charges as a measure of guilt!

The editorial then notes:

After a long silence on the case, the US government, believing Mr Gordon was well within his rights since he was on American soil, issued a statement through the US embassy in Bangkok saying: ”We urge the Thai authorities to ensure [that] freedom of expression is respected.”

Because the Post has “convicted” Joe already, it responds:

It is of course the business of Thailand to decide how to protect the royal institution….

That the Post supports the extra-territorial application of a domestic law and the arguably illegal actions of its officials is perhaps beside the point. Of course, the U.S. has a duty to protect its citizens overseas. It is a measure of the anti-liberal nature of lese majeste that the Post has to contort itself into supporting a law that is used for domestic political purposes and to repress. In any case, it is arguable that the law is subject to and in violation of Thailand’s international commitments. As one international law expert explains:

From the standpoint of the basic human rights of the defendant, this offence displays alarming features….

… It was noted at the outset that Thailand has international human rights obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1997. The current application of the lèse-majesté law arguably breaches this covenant in a number of respects, as demonstrated by this analysis of the current law and by the cases discussed in the next section….

Use the link above to read the cases. The Post editorial writer seems unaware of this point or is being deliberately misleading. Worse, the editorial then defends actions taken by the Abhisit government – the worst abuser of the law – to somehow ameliorate the impact of the law and to elide the truth.

It does this by reference to Thailand’s draft report to the United Nations Human Rights Council as seeking a “balance between protecting the monarchy and the right of individuals to express their views.” Of course, there is no balance. Everyone who criticizes the monarchy realizes that they risk prison. The Post then suggests that “the National Human Rights Commission and the Justice Ministry have instituted a process to review lese-majeste-related laws and practices.” It does not say that it was Abhisit who instituted the panel to look at the law and its use and that this panel accelerated the process of charging alleged offenders. Yes, one commissioner for human rights has seemed interested in the law, but precious little has resulted.

The Post editorial concludes by noting that it is ironic

that the unwise enforcement of lese majeste laws probably does more than anything else to damage the institution of the monarchy, which is revered by all who are familiar with the brilliant legacy of His Majesty the King.

PPT can agree that the law damages the monarchy. However, the last phrase simply shows that the lengths of crazy contortion that are required even of the most mild assessments of lese majeste and the monarchy. It is patently clear that many Thais no longer agree with the Post’s royalist bleating about the “brilliance” of the monarchy. The Post demonstrates the very lack of freedom of expression that should be expected in Thailand.


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