Lèse-majesté in Thailand

“The law’s defenders claim that Thailand’s love for its king is incomparable. Its critics say the law has become the foremost threat to the freedom of expression”. (David Streckfuss – Truth on Trial in Thailand)

Lèse-majesté – the crime of speaking offensively about the monarchy, has been present in Thai legislation for over a century; adopted into the new constitution in 1932 following the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Whilst lèse-majesté laws are still in existence today in Norway, Kuwait, Jordan and Spain, Thailand arguably holds the strongest enforcement of the law. To demonstrate this, consider the dramatic increase in the number of lèse-majesté charges –rising from 33 arrests in 2005 to 478 arrests in 2010, during the large-scale protests in Bangkok organised by the ‘red shirts’ against the Democratic government.

Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code outlines the lèse-majesté law as follows:

“Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The law encompasses many actions deemed to be of offence to the reigning sovereign, including defamation of images of the King, text messages, written and spoken affronts. The law even includes a ban on the purchase of texts depicting a negative portrayal of the King –take for instance, the controversial book The King Never Smiles,which is not only prohibited in Thailand, but also subject to Internet censorship. Prominent political activist and magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was sentenced to ten years imprisonment under lèse-majesté for printing remarks that were both insulting and threatening to the King. Denied bail 12 times a mere 10 months into his sentence, human rights groups argue he has been denied his right to freedom of expression. His arrest has been met with protests on the streets and across universities in Thailand. Streckfuss declares that those imprisoned under lèse-majesté are not granted the right to a fair trail due to the way in which an investigation to uncover the ‘actual truth’ may involve further defamation of monarchical dignity by making accusations public. With a phenomenal 1,500% increase in lèse-majesté cases since 2006, the legislation remains unchallengeable. Those who wish to campaign for the abolition of Article 112 themselves risk being prosecuted under lèse-majesté.

Thai historian Streckfuss argues, “the difficulty for defenders of the law is to explain how the institution of Thai monarchy could be so utterly loved if it required the most repressive lèse-majesté law the modern world has known”. However, as TIME magazine’s Robert Horn points out, no member of the royal family has ever filed a claim of lèse-majesté. One must then question –if the monarchy itself is not objecting to the freedom of speech of its citizens, how has the law remained in legislation for over 70 years? Who truly benefits from this repression of public sentiment?

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