In 2006, Udomsak Wattanaworachaiwathin was charged with selling a book claimed to be banned in Thailand. In late April 2015, the Appeals Court overturned an earlier acquittal and sentenced him to 3 years in jail, reduced to 2 years for “useful testimony.” The Supreme Court confirmed the sentence on 15 September 2016.
That appeal to the the South Bangkok Criminal Court saw a request from the Public Prosecutor for a secret trial of the 65-year-old man charged under Article 112. Human rights groups had requested to observe the secret trial, but the court did not approve the request.
On 11 February 2014, the defendant, who is a book seller operating from temporary stalls and at street markets, had been charged with selling a Thai translation of The Devil’s Discus by Rayne Kruger. He was reportedly arrested while selling the book at a People’s Alliance for Democracy gathering at Lumpini Park on 2 May 2006.
The book was an account of several possible causes of the gunshot death of King Ananda Mahidol in 1946 and was published in English in 1964.The book was “banned under the now-abolished Printing Act.” PPT has several posts on the book. One of our posts was of an earlier report of this case, including a name-redacted PDF of the prosecutions charge sheet that can be downloaded here (6 pages). The Thai-language version กงจักรปีศาจหลัง is scarce, but see commentary here. There’s also a long discussion at New Mandala from 2008. The Thai translation is reportedly by Chalit Chaisithiwet and was published in 1974.
The Public Prosecutor claims “there are six sections in the book which constitute lèse majesté. The six sections are the author’s presentation of “theories” about the cause of the king’s death which involve the current king.” While most informed observers now seem to assume that the then King was accidentally killed by the present king, Kruger “concluded that the former king was likely to have committed suicide because his relationship with a foreign woman was unacceptable.”
The courtroom door has a sign that says “Secret Trial. No Entry.” In the trial, Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office, Thongthong Chandrangsu again appeared as “an expert on monarchical ceremonies” and testified as a prosecution witness, something he has made a habit. It is reported that Thongthong admitted “he did not finish the book,” but he considered “the six selected sections which involve the current king, … to be lèse majesté.” Thongthong also revealed that:
although the book says the assumptions in the six sections are likely to be impossible and comes to a different conclusion, it does not disprove those assumptions involving the current king. Someone reading the book may possibly believe in one of the theories [involving the current king].
The defendant’s attorney rightly observed to the court that “to determine whether a book constitutes lèse majesté or not, one needs to read the whole book, not a selected part.” Of course, any reasonable person would agree, but here we are dealing with the irrationality of lese majeste where reasonableness is the first casualty of the politicized nonsense that is supposed to be a court proceeding.
None of the prosecution’s witnesses had read the whole book.
In April 2014, Prachatai reported: “The Criminal Court on Thursday acquitted a 65-year-old vendor of a charge of lèse majesté.”
When Udomsak was initially acquitted, it seems that the court had decided to put the book on trial rather than the poor bookseller. The bookseller was acquitted because the prosecutors failed to prove that the defendant had the knowledge that the book had lese majeste content.
The Court “ruled that the book had content defaming the King, and the writer, Rayne Kruger, intended to insult the King,” which is not true at all, but then Kruger has been dead since 2003. Prachatai’s account of events is revealing:
The book, written by English-South African author Rayne Kruger and published in 1964, was declared illegal by the Thai authorities in 2006. It was translated into Thai by Chalit Chaisithiwet and a Thai version was published in 1974. According to Wikipedia, as soon as the book was published, it was banned in Thailand and Kruger was also banned from further entry to Thailand.
According to the accusation, there are six sections in the book which constitute lèse majesté. The six sections are the author’s presentation of “theories” about the cause of the former King’s death which involve the current King. The author concluded that the former King was likely to have committed suicide because his relationship with a foreign woman was unacceptable.
The police arrested him and confiscated a copy of the book and also a copy of the Same Sky journal, the “Monarchy and Thai society” issue of Oct-Dec 2005 (the Coca Cola issue). The two works were banned under the now-abolished Printing Act. The Public Prosecutor, however, only pressed charges for selling ‘The Devil’s Discus’.
The judge said that even though the book concluded that King Rama VIII committed suicide and did not involve the current King, the younger brother of King Rama VIII, it still unnecessarily mentioned King Bhumibol, which may cause misunderstanding among readers. Therefore, the writer had the intention to defame the King and the book was deemed lèse majesté, the judge concluded.
It seems that lese majeste judges are now literary critics as well as censors and monarchists.
Defense witness, Sulak Sivaraksa, who had read the book, “both in the original English version and the Thai translation, said that when reading in its entirety, it did not necessarily lead the reader to have a defamatory attitude toward the current [k]ing.”
According to the report, one of the defendant’s lawyers, said: “the ruling created a new standard in Article 112 cases. The ruling means that a single line in a book can alone determine that the whole book constitutes lèse majesté without consideration of the writer’s intention from reading the whole book.
Clearly, any “discussion of King Ananda’s death might land a person in jail for lèse majesté.”
On the constitutionality of a secret trial, the then constitution stated:
Section 40. A person shall have the rights in judicial process as follows:
… (2) fundamental rights in judicial process composing of, at least, right to public trial; right to be informed of and to examine into facts and related documents adequately; right to present facts, defences and evidences in the case; right to object the partial judges; right to be considered by the full bench of judges; and right to be informed of justifications given in the judgement or order;
(3) right to correct, prompt and fair trial;…
Clearly, Section 40 (2) has been breached and probably 40 (3) as well. Lese majeste is a law in Thailand that is above the constitution and allows judges to, in fact, breach the law, something they have done several times in cases involving, for example, Darunee Charnchoensilpakul and Somyos Prueksakasemsuk.
In the appeal process, the court decided that the defendant’s behavior had allegedly shown that “he knew the book had insulting details about the monarchy, and he could not prove the two copies he sold belonged to other people as he had claimed,” according to the judge. The judge said she decided to reduce the sentence from three to two years because of “useful testimony” by Udomsak.
On 15 September 2016, the Supreme Court confirmed an earlier ruling by the Appeal Court by sentencing him to three years imprisonment. However, the jail term was reduced by one third to two years because the testimony of the defendant was considered beneficial to the prosecution.
His final conviction comes some 10 years after his initial arrest.
Media accounts of Udomsak’s case:
Prachatai, 15 September 2016: “Elderly man jailed for two years for selling lèse majesté book”
Prachatai, 22 April 2015: “66-year-old bookseller sentenced to 3 years under lèse majesté law”
Bangkok Post, 22 April 2015: “Bookseller gets 2 years jail for lese majeste”
AFP, 22 April 2015: “Thailand Bookseller Given Jail Term for Royal Defamation”
Prachatai, 18 April 2014: “Devil’s Discus book seller acquitted of defaming monarchy”
Prachatai, 16 February 2014: “Secret lèse majesté trial on banned book on King Rama VIII’s mysterious death”