Lese majeste on the international agenda

20 03 2012

The lese majeste “scene” – if such a term can be used for something so horrid – has been relatively quiet of late in Thailand. Of course, that’s a view that can only be considered relative to the past few years when people were being accused and locked up with gay abandon by the royalist regimes, and then the initial raucous approach by some of the royalist toadies in the Puea Thai Party.

Despite people still suffering in prison on this vicious political charge and the mainstream media having gone quiet on lese majeste and Nitirat since the attack on Worachet Pakeerut, international attention is being maintained.

PPT mentioned the Reporters Without Borders report a couple of days ago, Bangkok Pundit has noted a review of Saying the Unsayable in the prestigious and influential Foreign Affairs, and now the LA Times and Chicago Tribune have given critical attention to lese majeste.

Our attention was caught by this latter report that rightly argues that this draconian law is a century old and essentially unchanged from when the monarchy pretty much did as it wanted, including using the state’s money for personal consumption. That law still locks up people and has them in chains, ignores human rights and punishes them incessantly.

The report notes the push for reform and the opposition from those who chant that the feudal law “is necessary to uphold the dignity of a king they portray as enlightened and selfless, transcending raucous, corruption-prone Thai politics.” Of course, this king may dislike populist politics, but he has played it just as hard as any politician.

The report cites more statistics on lese majeste:

The number of charges rose to 478 in 2010 from 33 in 2005. In 2011, the figure dropped to 85 as protests eased, according to Thailand’s Office of the Judiciary, but many critics remained outspoken about the law.

Remarkably for international reporting, this account speaks with Surachai Danwattananusorn, recently sentenced to more than 7 years in jail on this draconian charge, and still facing more charges. It is no surprise that Surachai should say that Article 112 is “an obsolete law not applicable to the modern world…”. It is pointed out that Surachai, despite a guilty plea, stated that he “denied doing anything wrong…”.

Surachai

Equally interesting is the profile provided to American citizen Joe Gordon, said to be a “high-profile case involving vexing jurisdictional issues…”. That’s kind of an understatement given that Joe was found guilty for, the court says, while living in the United States, posting a Thai translation of the Yale University Press bestseller The King Never Smiles.The pathetic effort to “protect” one of the world’s most politically and economically powerful monarchy extends beyond the borders of Thailand. Joe pleaded guilty apparently thinking he’d get some mercy from the palace, but nothing has happened and he continues to be punished for an alleged crime that was a legal act in his country.

On the chances for reform, the article comments:

With an increasingly polarized electorate, an aging king, a weak government, a conservative judiciary and a divided legislature, few analysts see much chance of the law changing soon. Even Thais advocating reform … say a majority of the public probably wouldn’t support new rules.

That’s probably a reasonable assessment but misses the point that the activism associated with lese majeste would have simply been impossible a few years ago. Despite the comments of the foreign academic cited in the story, much has changed.

Surachai gets the last word, making the point that even more change is required:

it’s time for Thailand to modernize and join the ranks of constitutional monarchies that have watered down or all but eliminated their lese-majeste laws.

“We just want the law updated,” he said, dressed in a dark red prison jumpsuit, “so it is more like countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden.”

That position seems entirely reasonable.


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