Updated: The Economist on the threat from lese majeste

27 01 2015

PPT noticed an article in The Economist  on lese majeste that is only available on its website.

Titled “The royal road to ruin,” it argues that the “strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression.”

The article doesn’t have much that is new, but might be compared with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ propaganda page on the monarchy that includes several “academics” like Bowornsak Uwanno and Suchit Bunbongkarn writing in support of this draconian law and feudal politics.

Update: The full article:

The royal road to ruin
In Thailand, strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression

ALTHOUGH lèse-majesté laws remain on the books in many constitutional monarchies, prosecutions are rare. Thailand is an exception: it enforces them far more assiduously than any other country since Japan canned rules protecting its emperor after the second world war. Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens” the King, his heir, the Queen or a regent risks between three and 15 years in jail. For decades, the number of cases averaged around ten a year, but since 2004, they have soared to several hundred each year, as friction between Thailand’s populist governments and its traditional ruling establishment has erupted into conflict.

Lèse-majesté complaints are a common way of harassing political rivals. A surge of new cases followed last May’s military coup. Anyone can report an offence, and it is not only speech that breaks the rules. In 2011 a 61-year-old received a 20-year sentence for sending four offensive text messages; he denied the charges and died in prison the following year. People who fail to stand for the royal anthem, still played before most film screenings, or deface banknotes, which bear the King’s image, have fallen foul of the law. In December complaints of lèse-majesté were made against a woman who wore black clothes on the eve of the King’s birthday. In 2008 a series of charges against the BBC included the complaint that its website had allowed the King’s image to appear below that of a politician.

Foreigners who break the lèse-majesté law are often swiftly deported, but in recent years more of them have served jail terms. In 2007 Oliver Jufer, a Swiss national, received a ten-year sentence for defacing pictures of the King while drunk (he was pardoned after a month). Shortly afterwards an Australian, Harry Nicolaides, spent more than a year behind bars because one paragraph in a self-published novel contained an unflattering description of the crown prince. In 2012 Joe Gordon, a Thai American, spent 13 months* in prison for translating excerpts of “The King Never Smiles”, an English-language biography of the King that is banned in Thailand.

In 2005 King Bhumibol warned supporters that over-zealous implementation of lèse-majesté laws could create problems for the monarchy. The palace regularly issues pardons, particularly if cases are well-publicised and miscreants apologetic, but the volume of prosecutions is moving upwards, all the same. Hard-liners argue that criticism of lèse-majesté laws is itself a crime, which is one reason the plague is so difficult to stop. And cases are poorly covered in the media, for fear of repeating the offence.

In theory the death of King Bhumibol, who is 87 years old, could provide a window for reform. It is more likely that fears about the monarchy’s future will prompt the courts to crack down even harder.

*Correction: This article originally stated that Joe Gordon spent seven months in jail. Mr Gordon has been in touch to say that he was jailed on 24 May 2011 and released on 11 July 2012. He adds: “The Thai kangaroo court never allowed bail for me to fight the case. I had only one chance to plead guilty in order to get pardon from King Bhumibol. Otherwise, I could get 20 years imprisonment.”



One response

30 01 2015
On The Economist and “sensitive” and “risky” content | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] 27 January, PPT mentioned an article in The Economist  on lese majeste that is only available on its website. Titled “The royal road […]

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