HRW on lese majeste I

25 04 2012

The upcoming verdict in the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Prachatai’s web-board manager, on computer crimes and lese majeste charges, prompts Human Rights Watch to comment on these laws. PPT will come to that in part II of this post. In this first post, we wish to look at HRW’s record on lese majeste.

Based on our search of the HRW website, we get returns as far back as 2003, with 23 links related to Thailand. In all that follows, emphasis in bold type is added by PPT.

It seems the first comment on lese majeste in Thailand is in 2005:

On Tuesday, [Prime Minister] Thaksin [Shinawatra] heeded the advice of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and dropped six criminal and civil defamation suits against journalist and Manager Media Group founder Sondhi Limthongkul. The king also advised the prime minister not to overreact to critics and to tolerate media criticisms instead of trying to suppress them….

Sondhi and one of his colleagues, Sarocha Pornudomsak, continue to face two police investigations into lese majeste offences for allegedly criticizing the king. The first is under the jurisdiction of Provincial Police Region Three. The second is being handled by the Central Investigation Bureau….

Later in its report HRW notes that a court had rejected the first charges of lese majeste. Interestingly, HRW makes no observation on this political use of lese majeste. Soon after,  in 2007, HRW reports:

On October 8 Pongthep Thetpratheep, secretary-general to the interim prime minister, General Surayud Chulanont, told activist groups and journalists to stop voicing opposition to the new cabinet line-up, saying that it could be viewed as interfering with the King’s decision. “Lese majeste” is a serious criminal offense in Thailand, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Again, there is no comment on the law and its politicized use, which appears to only emerge in 2008, when HRW makes the first critical observation on the law that PPT is able to locate:

The PAD has … actively advocated the use of charges of lèse majesté (insulting the monarchy) against supporters of the government to stifle free expression. It accuses many pro-government websites of promoting anti-monarchy sentiments, a serious attack on freedom of expression given Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws. More than 400 websites have closed in 2008, some under compulsion, others out of fear.

In the same year, HRW commented on political violence and said:

The PAD has also actively advocated the use of charges of lese majeste … against supporters of the government to stifle free expression. It has accused many pro-government websites of promoting anti-monarchy sentiments, a serious attack on freedom of expression given Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws. More than 400 websites have closed in 2008, some by order of the police, others out of fear.

Media freedom and freedom of expression in Thailand have been at risk from the political conflict,” said [HRW spokesman Brad] Adams. “The PAD has shown little respect for these basic human rights.”

Following up on this, in its 2008 country report, HRW notes charges against Jakrapob Penkair and Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, putting the charges in a category of limiting freedom of expression, and noting, again, that political conflict was at the root of the charges, but refraining from commenting on the law itself.

It is only late in 2009 that HRW notes that “Thailand makes arbitrary use of the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act.” Oddly, this statement appears de-linked from earlier comments on political conflict.

In its 2009 country report, released in early 2010, and again commenting on freedom of expression, “Thailand” is said to be censoring thousands of websites “accusing them of promoting anti-monarchy sentiments and posing threats to national security” and charging several people with lese majeste, while jailing Darunee and Suwicha Thakor. In a related press release, HRW finally chastises the “government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva largely failed to fulfill its pledges to make human rights a priority…”. It stated:

“Democracy in Thailand suffers badly from draconian laws on lese majeste and cyber crimes,” said Adams. “A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government.”

The government also has used both the lese majeste statute in the Criminal Code and the new Computer Crimes Act to suppress critics of the monarchy and persecute perceived government enemies.

In effect, it is only in late 2009 that HRW finally makes the all too obvious link between political conflict, lese majeste and freedom of expression.

It is not until 2010, following the Abhisit government’s two bloody crackdown operations against red shirt protestors, that there is anything like a serious accounting of lese majeste cases, and this comes in HRW’s forensically-challenged report on those crackdowns. But still, HRW does not comment on the law itself and the need to amend or trash it.

Somewhat oddly, it is not until 15 August 2011, and following the election of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, that HRW has a lese majeste epiphany, demanding:

End all restrictions on the media that violate the right to freedom of expression, and announce a concrete plan to revoke laws such as the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, the Computer Crimes Act, and the laws regarding lese majeste.

HRW even went to far as to issue an open letter to Yingluck on this and other human rights issues. While this demand was welcomed, it has to be said that it is odd because no such demand was made during the periods when the lese majeste law was being politically used most savagely, under the royalist governments led by Surayud and Abhisit.

By December 2011, however, following the ludicrous sentencing of Ampol Tangnopakul, HRW seemed to backslide, moving from its call to “revoke” the lese majeste law to “amend” it and began writing of eliminating “unnecessary restrictions” on free speech:

A Thai court’s sentencing of a 61-year-old man to 20 years in prison for sending four text messages illustrates the misuse by successive Thai governments of laws intended to protect the monarchy, Human Rights Watch said today. Thailand’s lese majeste laws should be amended to prevent unnecessary restrictions on freedom of expression.

We wonder what the “necessary restrictions” were and why HRW was backsliding on its earlier demand? HRW later repeated its call for amending the law. Within a few months, HRW was slamming the Yingluck government:

The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which took power after winning the general election in July, has largely failed to fulfill its pledges to make human rights a priority.

HRW seemed unable to adequately mount a critical attack on the Abhisit government, in power for more than two years, but could almost immediately jump in, boots and all, attacking the Yingluck government after less than 6 months. Why was that?

Finally, in 2012, HRW finally found itself able to criticize the standard and long-standing practice of refusing bail to most lese majeste victims. It stated:

Thai courts are refusing bail for people charged with the crime of lese majeste for apparently political reasons, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai law criminalizes the expression of peaceful opinions deemed offensive to the institution of the monarchy.

In all cases mentioned in its statement, this practice began earlier, under the Samak Sundaravej, Surayud and Abhisit governments. Again, PPT can only wonder why it took HRW more than three years to get to this issue.

It seems to PPT that HRW has been well behind on human rights issues associated with lese majeste in Thailand, appearing to take a politicized approach to the issue. It is in this context that HRW’s most recent statement needs to be considered. We turn to that in part II of this post.

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