HRW on lese majeste penalties

3 12 2011

Human Rights Watch has issued a statement on lese majeste, taking the opportunity afforded by the recent sentencing of Ampol Tangnopakul.

We have some problems with their approach while applauding every call that blasts lese majeste on human rights grounds.

HRW observes that the “20 years in prison for sending four text messages illustrates the misuse by successive Thai governments of laws intended to protect the monarchy…”. HRW calls for the lese majeste law to “be amended to prevent unnecessary restrictions on freedom of expression.”

HRW concludes that the “severity of penalties being meted out for lese majeste offenses in Thailand is shocking…. The new government seems to be responding to questions about its loyalty to the monarchy by filing countless lese majeste charges.”

Frankly, this particular assertion is a misrepresentation. To date, as far as we are aware, there has only been one charge filed since the Yingluck Shinawatra government came to power. That case of  Surapak Puchaisaeng was the first of a person arrested under the new government (and later mentioned in the HRW statement).

While there are now suggestions that there might be more, even the one known case was investigated under the Abhisit Vejjajiva government. The cases of several others arrested and jailed under the previous government have gone to court. We prefer not to guess why HRW is taking this line; readers will have their own views.

While noting the cases under the Abhisit government, HRW highlights events under the Yingluck government. While statements and some actions by the current government are worrying, lese majeste repression has not reached the levels of the previous government by a long shot.

Of course, we agree that a “chokehold on freedom of expression is being created in the name of protecting the monarchy…”.

That HRW should then go ahead and quote the king on lese majeste, suggesting he can accept criticism is odd indeed. That line has been used ad nauseum and it seems that HRW is unable to see that lese majeste is a part of a system of domination. They misinterpret the political situation and the nature of political domination.

That said, we agree with HRW in urging the “government to make public information about everyone who has been arrested, charged, or convicted for lese majeste under article 112 of the Criminal Code and article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act. In particular, the Thai government should make available information about how many of the lese majeste complaints have been filed by private parties and how many have been filed by state agencies.”

Sounding rather like “liberal royalists,” HRW urges “the Thai government to amend the laws so that private parties cannot bring complaints of lese majeste since no private harm is incurred.” While calling for the abolition of lese majeste may be considered unlikely to have a practical impact in Thailand, it would make excellent human rights sense.

Again, though, HRW is politically misinformed, considering that “[p]rivate persons and groups often misuse lese majeste laws for political purposes.” That is true, but they seem intent on portraying the monarchy as a disinterested and blameless party and with no interest in lese majeste. We think that is, at best, dumb, and at worst an exercise in dissembling.

Even though we agree with HRW on the most basic aspects of lese majeste, we consider them rather too weak and careful on lese majeste and on political prisoners. They are beginning to sound rather like Amnesty International – protective of their own interests rather than being a brave and unbending beacon on human rights.


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