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A royal offence
January 22, 2009
By Roby Alampay (The Guardian)
Thailand's draconian lese-majesty law is a blunt instrument that Thais can too easily turn on foreigners – and each other
Australian writer Harry Nicolaides has been sentenced to three years in a Thai prison for writing a novel that practically nobody has read. Nicolaides' Verisimilitude had a print run of 50 copies. He sold no more than 10. But something in the book allegedly insulted Thailand's royal family, and that was enough to have him chained at the ankles, shaven-headed and snivelling, remorseful to the heavens but too late to avoid some time in jail.
Fair or not (and many Thais will insist that it is not), Nicolaides' pitiable image is the current face of Thailand's lese-majesty law: frivolous and disproportionate, some would say ridiculous, maybe even funny, if it weren't so chilling.
Those who find the international interest over Nicolaides unfortunate point out that few people actually spend any significant amount of time in jail because of the defamation law. Indeed, there is speculation that he may receive a pardon. Thailand's genuinely revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has in the past been quick to reward remorse with mercy. ("Just be careful next time," the police and politicians tend to tell those who are ultimately released. "And – this goes for all of you paying attention – don't ever do it again.")
The problem with broad and undefined defamation laws, of course, is that notwithstanding the examples made of writers like Nicolaides, nobody actually knows what to avoid in the future. Silence is the only reliable haven. Even though the king declared himself fallible in 2005 (it "pains" him, he said on his birthday, to be portrayed as above criticism) the environment encourages self-censorship. A December issue of the Economist was "voluntarily" withheld by its Thai distributors because it featured articles highlighting the influence of the monarchy in politics. Bangkok bloggers and popular aggregator sites often receive "requests" from government and/or military officials to take down commentary that is deemed disrespectful to the king, and they are quick to oblige.
Meanwhile, lese-majesty cases continue to hang over the BBC's correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head, for stories that questioned the role or influence of the Thai monarchy in Thailand's recent coups and political crises. Within a week of being installed as prime minister in December, Abhisit Vejjajiva said that defending the monarchy would be a key aspect of his government. His information and communication minister added that internet censorship would be a priority – the agency had already blocked 2,300 websites as of mid-January – and put this agenda specifically in the context of a need to defend the royal family (from YouTube videos, for example).
The charge of lese-majesty can be brought against anyone by anybody else. In the past year, police summoned an academic who questioned the royal family's involvement in Thailand's recent coups, and a former government official who took part in a media forum with some perspectives on republicanism. But charges have also been brought by fellow citizens against a man who, critical of recent coups, refused to stand in a cinema during the customary playing of the king's anthem, and then against a labour leader who appeared on a TV news programme to talk about an ongoing strike in a clothing factory. The labour dispute had nothing to do with the man who refused to stand in the theatre. But on TV the union leader happened to wear a shirt that read, "Not standing up is not a crime", and that was all it took for her union-busting employers to bring Thailand's most notorious anti-insult law to bear down on the worker. Practically every Thai political camp routinely taunts the others with the charge.
In other words, the self-interest that fuels accusations of lese-majesty is plain. And calls to review the law have become more explicit. Speaking to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last week, Abhisit, a product of Eton College and Oxford, made no apologies for his pledge to defend the monarchy and the virtues of lese-majesty. But he also promised to defend free expression. To strike a balance, Abhisit said he had spoken to the national police chief – who must look into every report of lese-majesty – and suggested that while the law has a place and purpose in Thailand's culture and history, with a little discretion the abuses could be curtailed.
One of the more prominent Thais facing charges, the academic and activist Giles Ungpakorn, who raised questions about the royal family's influence over Thai politics, says the government must go further. Ungpakorn is calling for an international campaign to take lese majeste off the statute books. He wants international scrutiny because plainly the arguments against any criminal defamation statute are rightly presumed to stand on universal principles of free expression. But the appeal is also to the international community, because it is hard to imagine reform will be popular within Thailand. Both the frailty of an adored 81-year-old king and the chaos to which Thailand recently descended (flirting, many said, with civil war) make Thais shudder.
All the same, Ungpakorn's point is well made. Lese-majesty must be checked as the over-broad, undefined, and therefore dangerous legislation that it is. Whether or not it can be completely revoked, Abhisit's assurances of his own light touch will not do. If anything, his directive to the police emphasises how subject the law is to political influence. Lese-majesty in Thailand is a blunt instrument that is too easily picked up and swung – often, it seems, by everyone except the one man whom it was designed to protect. How long will Thailand's parliament allow Thais to use it against each other?
First appeared in The Guardian Thanks to Roby Alampay and The Guardian for covering these documents. Copyright remains with The Guardian.
Source documents & analysis:
- Imprisoned Australian author Harry Nicolaides censored novel: Verismilitude, 2005
- Imprisoned Australian author Harry Nicolaides censored novel: Verismilitude, extract, 2005
- Thailand official MICT censorship list, 20 Dec 2008
- A Coup for the Rich: Thailand's Political Crisis, 2007
- 1,203 new websites censored by Thailand
- Internet Censorship in Thailand