The monarchy, freedom and democracy

1 05 2013

The US Department of State has released its Human Rights Report for 2012. PPT was alerted to this by a story at the Bangkok Post that referred to this report as “a highly critical report detailing … Thailand’s human rights failings.” It added that: “Observers noted this year’s report was more rounded and detailed, especially regarding the southern insurgency.”

Indeed, on our first skim of the report, released a week ago, it does seem somewhat better than its somewhat bland and repetitive reports of recent years. PPT has been especially critical of the State Department’s reports for their failure on lese majeste and the existence of political prisoners. Indeed, last year we commented on a:

hopelessly, probably deliberately, deceitful U.S. “human rights” report for Thailand in 2011. If it wasn’t deliberately deceitful, then we imagine that everyone on the Thailand desk at the Department of State and in the Embassy in Bangkok has been lobotomized to the extent that they are deaf, dumb and blind on lese majeste and other political prisoners in Thailand.

This year there is a change. As in previous years, there are useful comments on a range of issues including officials’ impunity, the use of emergency and other special laws and a range of abuses by security forces and local defence volunteers in the south. That list is disturbing reading. As the Post has it:

Security forces, the report said, were guilty of using excessive force, including killing, torturing and otherwise abusing suspects, detainees and prisoners.

PPT wants to highlight some of the report’s comments on politics, monarchy, lese majeste and political prisoners, which we think represents an attempt to break out of the previous genuflecting to the royalist propagandists and flunkies who have previously shaped American official discourses on Thailand. We will just quote and highlight (with some of the headings added by us):

Red shirts: According to an advocacy group, as of December, 16 protesters jailed after the 2010 United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD or “Red Shirts”) protests remained in pretrial detention, charged with protest-related crimes such as rioting and arson. Lawyers affiliated with the UDD movement continued to pursue bail for these remaining detainees held in several provinces. According to a UDD-affiliated information center, of the 1,857 arrests related to the 2010 protests, authorities prosecuted 1,664 individuals as of December, and the courts dismissed 91 cases, sentenced 850 individuals to probation and/or fines, and imprisoned 220 for less than one year, 63 for one to three years, 10 for three to five years, 10 for five to 10 years, and 27 for more than 10 years. According to the Department of Special Investigations, of the 270 protest-related cases under its jurisdiction, it completed 216 investigations as of December, and trials in 62 cases continued at year’s end.

Lese majeste: A July 10 royal pardon allowed the release of dual-national Joe Gordon (also known as Lerpong Wichaikhammat), who was sentenced in December 2011 to two and one-half years’ in prison for lese-majeste offenses. On August 16, a mass pardon in honor of the birthdays of the crown prince (July 28) and the queen (August 12) led to the release of approximately 30,000 prisoners. On August 24, in honor of the queen’s birthday, Suchart Narkbangsai and Suriyan Kokpuai, who were both serving three-year sentences for lese-majeste convictions, received royal pardons and were released.

PPT isn’t quite sure how releasing lese majeste convicts a bit early is an “honor” for the anyone. Thailand’s royals should be ashamed – not honored – that this feudal law remains in place; they could easily have it done away with if they had sufficient honor.

Trials: While most trials are public, the court may order a closed trial, particularly in cases involving national security, the royal family, children, or sexual abuse.

PPT can’t help but wonder why the State Department didn’t point out that closing courts infringes Section 40 of the current constitution. In other words, a court may close its proceedings but in doing so is infringing Thailand’s basic law.

Political Prisoners and Detainees: There were no government reports of political prisoners or detainees; however, sources estimated that seven to 18 persons remained detained under lese-majeste laws that outlaw criticism of the monarchy…. Some of those cases involved persons exercising their rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

While this statement is something of a step forward for the State Department, it still makes serious errors. For example, the claim that there are no government reports of political prisoners is simply a stupid claim. After all, the government has established a special prison for political prisoners at Laksi. Indeed, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra mentioned political prisoners in a speech this week.

Freedom of Speech and Press: The international and independent media operated freely, except in coverage of matters deemed a threat to national security or offensive to the monarchy…. Journalists generally were free to comment on government activities and institutions without fear of official reprisal. Nonetheless, they occasionally practiced self-censorship, particularly with regard to the monarchy and national security. For example, in April the Thai distributor of The Economist magazine withheld one issue because of a story about lese-majeste prosecutions…. The government imposed some restrictions on access to the Internet and reportedly monitored Internet chat rooms and social media without judicial oversight. Individuals and groups generally engaged in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail, although there were several limitations on content, such as lese majeste, pornography, and gambling…. The RTP Electronic Crime Suppression Division reported receiving 776 computer-related complaints during 2011 that resulted in 442 investigations–a complaint rate markedly greater than the 47 in 2009 or 285 in 2010. Most cases involved alleged defamation, lese majeste, and illegal activity such as gambling and pornography. Separately, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology operated the Cyber Security Operations Center to monitor and block Web sites. According to a report by the NGO iLaw, court orders officially blocked nearly 21,000 Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) during the year, 80 percent of which were related to lese majeste. Since passage of the 2007 Computer Crime Act, authorities blocked more than 102,000 URLs, 76 percent related to lese majeste.

From this list it is crystal clear that the major impediment to free speech is the monarchy, lese majeste and national security. Indeed, “national security” is usually defined n terms of the monarchy as well. Can it be said that, apart from the monarchy, Thailand is relatively free? It certainly seems that way.

And finally, this: The constitution provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal, compulsory suffrage.

How true is this? Yes, there are periodic elections, but there are also periodic military and judicial coups…. More to the point, Section 68 of the constitution effectively makes it illegal to advocate for a republic in Thailand. Again, the monarchy is an obstacle to full democratic freedoms.



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