The latest release of cables from Wikileaks has a remarkable piece of “advice” from then U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce on how to deal with lese majeste charges against a U.S. citizen, based on a Swiss experience. The “Swiss experience” relates to the case of Oliver Jufer and embassies in Bangkok, Amnesty International and those who speak for them on blogs, tend to argue that quiet diplomacy and “working quietly behind the scenes” carries the day when dealing with lese majeste.
For a refresher on Jufer’s case back in 2006-07, see these links: BBC1 (an excellent account by Jonathan Head), BBC2, Save a Life, and see the set of links at New Mandala. Jufer was arrested by 7 December 2006 (Below, Boyce says 5 December).
In Head’s report, there is this: “We had heard he was indignant when first arrested. He had planned to plead not guilty. But he has clearly been advised since, perhaps by his lawyer, or the Swiss Embassy, to change his tune.” He had already spent 3 months in prison awaiting trial. Several of the reports note the politicization of lese majeste by the military junta that came to power through the royalist coup of 2006. This is one example:
After Jufer was arrested, Gen Saprang Kanlayanamitr, deputy secretary-general of the Council for National Security, as the junta styles itself, said: “The suspect must have been hired by someone so I have ordered soldiers to investigate the incident and bring the mastermind of this crime to justice.” Nonetheless, Thai media have barely covered the case after police urged local journalists not to report it.
That statement by Saprang is reflective of the idiocy surrounding Thaksin Shinawatra and lese majeste following the coup, with Saprang suggesting that Jufer was put up to the act by the regime’s political opponents.
Jufer was sentenced to 20 years, reduced to 10 year because he was persuaded to change his plea to guilty. That guilty plea meant that no evidence was heard in the court.
U.S. Ambassador Boyce, who has shown himself pro-coup and pro-junta in other cables, offers advice to the State Department. His cable begins with a reference to the “recent arrest and subsequent pardon of a Swiss national accused of offending Thailand’s revered King Bhumipol Adulyadej…”. It is as if this is all that matters. Jufer was arrested somewhere around 6 December 2006 and wasn’t pardoned and deported until 12 April 2007, meaning that he spent more than 4 months in prison for a drunken defacing of a few of the thousands of monarchy propaganda posters that are required around the time of the king’s birthday and that often stay up all year these days.
Boyce goes into the usual royalist spin about the monarch being revered and wielding “great moral authority” as if Boyce hadn’t been following the events of the past years and sending cables supportive of the palace’s politics during that time.
He then claims that this case “provided a rare window into the reaction of the palace to incidents of lese majeste” and adds that:
Swiss officials in Thailand believe their restrained response to the arrest, in spite of their public’s demand for strong action, contributed to the sooner-than-expected release of their citizen.
Boyce states that Jufer was:
sentenced to ten years imprisonment [PPT: in fact, it was 20 years, reduced for pleading guilty] after being convicted on lese majeste charges.” He “spraying black paint over five outdoor posters of King Bhumipol Adulyadej on December 5, 2006 (the King’s birthday) in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Jufer admitted to being drunk at the time and was reportedly angry that new laws limiting the times when alcohol can be sold prevented him from buying beer.
Boyce then makes some outlandish claims:
Sentences for lese majeste are typically hortatory in nature and offenders are normally pardoned by the king. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the recent ban of the popular web site YouTube (see reftel), the overwhelming popularity of the Thai sovereign compels the authorities to act should someone publicly slight the King or his family.
All that he state here is nonsense and it is clear that Boyce is making a series of royalist claims that are close to his heart. First, it is the law that is “hortatory,” not the sentences. Indeed, as several of the newspaper accounts cited above make very clear, there was precious little media coverage in Thailand and attempts to limit international coverage. It is the law itself that demands self-censorship and the repression of views that are not the same as those of royalists. Second, the claim that the king is so widely adored that any “slight” against the king demands that the government acts puts him in la-la land. Boyce diverts attention from what PPT calls lese majeste repression and ignores long suppressed anti-monarchy sentiments that were widespread following the coup.
According to Swiss Embassy Minister Jacques Lauer, who helped coordinate the Swiss response to Jufer’s arrest, the Swiss government was surprised by how rapidly the King pardoned Jufer — a mere 13 days following his conviction and before Jufer had even filed an appeal or requested a royal pardon. Lauer indicated they had expected the King would follow tradition and wait until his 80th birthday, eight months later, to pardon Jufer and others accused of lese majeste. Lauer noted that Thai prison officials provided Swiss consular officials full access to Jufer.
PPT is unsure of the notion of “tradition” in sentencing and pardoning. A previous know case cited at Wikipedia says this:
Frenchman Lech Tomasz Kisielewicz allegedly committed lèse majesté in 1995 by making a derogatory remark about a Thai princess while on board a Thai Airways flight. Although in international airspace at the time, he was taken into custody upon landing in Bangkok and charged with offending the monarchy. He was detained for two weeks, released on bail, and acquitted after writing a letter of apology to the king, and deported.
It would seem that the “tradition” was not a tradition and depended on circumstances and whim. Kisielewicz was a relatively wealthy businessman with international connections and had refused to obey the instructions of an airline hostess who demanded he turn off his reading light that was said to have “inconvenienced” Princess Soamsawali, sitting in front of him. He was said to uttered derogatory remarks. In fact, Soamsawali is not covered by Article 112 but this case shows the illegality involved in the use of the law.
With no detail, background or previous experience cited, Boyce believes the Swiss got it right:
Minister Lauer credited Jufer’s speedy pardon to a Swiss decision to not antagonize Thai officials by making public comments, an action that may have provoked a backlash due to the public adoration of the King. Lauer claimed that intense international media attention and the public clamor in Switzerland for Jufer’s release made it difficult to balance the need to avoid offending their Thai interlocutors while appearing proactive in the eyes of the Swiss public. While historically relatively few foreigners have been accused of lese majeste, Lauer cautioned that should an AmCit be detained for lese majeste charges, any public criticism or appeals by USG officials would be tantamount to “throwing oil on the fire”.
There’s no evidence for this claim except the feeling espoused by an official who was criticized for his lack of action on the Jufer case. There is no contrary evidence because no embassy has been willing to take a public stand and criticize the Thai law and its use. Backbone has been lacking and still is. In addition, the U.S. relationship with Thailand is quite different from that between Switzerland and Thailand. Boyce concludes:
If an AmCit were to be charged with lese majeste, it is likely that a low key approach outside the public eye would stand the best chance of success in getting him or her out of custody and out of Thailand.
That seems to be the current line taken by the Embassy and State Department in dealing with the truly testing case of Joe Gordon, charged with offenses allegedly committed on U.S. soil.
It might be noted that another embassy that seems to have followed the “don’t rock the boat” strategy is the Australian Embassy during the imprisonment of Australian citizen Harry Nicolaides. In this case, the Harry’s family complained about the Australian government’s approach and his lawyer became outspoken. As pointed out in our page on Nicolaides, while he mouthed appreciation for the efforts of governments, he seemed more concerned to thank the media and people in Australia for keeping the pressure on and support up. The Australian government appears to have believed that a guilty plea and conviction would result in a quick pardon and deportation. It took a month, meaning that Harry was in jail from 2 September 2008 to 20 February 2009. His return to Australia is chronicled here.
In his concluding comment, Boyce writes about the “King’s preexisting public statement that he will pardon anyone convicted of lese majeste…”. Of course, it is not as simple as Boyce’s propaganda-like statement makes out. If a guilty plea isn’t entered, getting a pardon seems not to be in the equation, unless it is a part of general sentence reductions and releases associated with the king’s birthday.
Boyce then really gets out on a thin limb by claiming that the “sooner-than-expected release of Jufer seem to indicate that the palace is uncomfortable with the strict application of lese majeste laws.” He adds that:
palace officials seem reluctant to let lese majeste be used as a tool to punish those who are accused of defaming the monarch. The palace appears quite sensitive to the possibility that lese majeste could be abused by non-palace actors to achieve their own ends.
They might be but these officials have since seemed all too eager to allow its political allies to use Article 112 for political purposes, most notably against red shirts. In fact, as the Anthony Chai case makes clear, palace officials are intimately involved in lese majeste cases.
The Wikileaks cables suggest that, by this point in his career as U.S. Ambassador, Boyce was doing little more than cheering for junta and monarchy. If his partisan advice now drives U.S. policy on lese majeste, then U.S. citizens can expect little support if they are caught up with draconian lese majeste repression.