In recent years, authorities in Thailand have increasingly applied an antiquated lèse-majesté law to silence critics of authorities. On Friday, a dual U.S./Thai citizen became the latest person arrested for allegedly insulting the country’s ailing king.
BANGKOK – If you listen to what Thailand's military leaders are saying, the Thai monarchy is under a state of siege necessitating emergency measures.
A special department of the army has been put in charge of monitoring local radio programs and websites to detect "any slanderous or libelous contents against the monarchy." And hundreds of volunteers have been recruited to "patrol" the Internet.
Thailand's Department of Special Investigation, an FBI-like national detective force, has lodged 19 lèse-majesté complaints against leaders of the "Red Shirts," a political pressure group opposed to the current government. For three months last year, the Red Shirts brought the center of Bangkok to a standstill. Authorities are using the lèse-majesté law to charge critics with violating the dignity of the monarch.
Several media professionals have already been caught up in the dragnet. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor-in-chief of the independent news website Prachatai, faces a possible 50-year jail sentence for failing to "delete rapidly enough" offensive comments about the royal family that appeared on the site. In March, a webmaster was given a five-year jail sentence for similar reasons. And Somsak Jeamteerasakul, an obscure historian, has been accused of leading a university conspiracy aiming to weaken the monarchy.
Lèse-majesté cases have spiked in recent years, according to David Streckfuss, author of a book about the Thai monarchy. Before 2005, Thailand had had fewer than a dozen such cases. There have been more than 500 since. (A Thai-born U.S. citizen was arrested this week on allegations of insulting the king for an article he had translated and posted on his blog)
Streckfuss sees the crackdown on would-be opponents as directly related to the declining health of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The 83-year-old monarch has been hospitalized since September 2009. "It is possible that the closer we get to the point where someone will succeed to the throne, the more the Thai authorities will systematically use the law to try to stifle criticisms," says Streckfuss.
The inevitable transfer of power is further complicated by growing political divisions in Thailand between members of the establishment (soldiers, bureaucrats, royalist milieus and the Democrat Party in power) and forces in favor of a more egalitarian society. These divisions have been particularly apparent over the past five years. The high-profile Red Shirt movement is a case in point.
"The head of the army, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, and the government try to make the Red Shirts look like an anti-monarchist movement," says an activist pushing for the abolition of lèse-majesté accusations, who requested anonymity. "The issue of the monarchy has always been used by the establishment to discredit the forces opposed to the current government."
Any insult to the king, the queen and the successor to the throne is punishable by jail sentences of between three and 15 years. Sanctions were less severe when Thailand was an absolute monarchy – before 1932.
In 2005, King Bhumibol spoke out against the lèse-majesté crackdown. If the king cannot be criticized, it means "he is not a human being," said Bhumibol. The king's statement had little effect on the situation.
Some observers say the ultra-monarchist hysteria erodes the institution's aura and galvanizes those who want to change it. Former Thai Senator Jon Ungphakorn thinks that "those who style themselves as defenders of the monarchy are the very ones who destabilize it, and bring to a standstill the reforms that could enable the monarchy to endure."