Abused too easily and often, lese majeste law is indefensiblebackground-defaultbackground-default

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MONDAY, May 29, 2023
Abused too easily and often, lese majeste law is indefensible

Abused too easily and often, lese majeste law is indefensible

MONDAY, November 30, 2015

Foreign criticism of the severe punishment once again draws protest, which is futile and quite beside the point of the debate

The weathered “Yankee go home” rhetoric makes for poor spectacle when it’s revived to counter straightforward criticism of divisive elements in our society. One of those elements is the lese majeste law, designed to preserve the honour of the monarchy, but sadly too often abused for political ends, much to the stated chagrin of His Majesty the King.
Last Friday the distasteful spectacle was played out yet again when an outspoken monk, Luang Pu Buddha Issara, led some 200 people in a protest outside the US Embassy following the publication of remarks by Ambassador Glyn Davies. The demonstrators held placards bearing the messages “This is Thailand, not the USA” and “Go home” and their spokespeople condemned the ambassador for encroaching on Thai affairs.
The nationalist monk accused Davies of trying to apply “pressure to make us change” the law. “You have no right and no power,” he said. “We are not slaves of the US. The monarchy is a sacred symbol that all Thais are ready to defend with their lives!”
Davies, who assumed his position in September, had noted in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that the number of lese majeste prosecutions had increased under the current military-led government. He expressed concern over the lengthy prison sentences handed down by military courts against civilians found guilty.
More unsettling than a foreigner’s mere statement of fact and expression of dismay is the ensnaring of even senior police and military officers who, in their positions, had applied the law against activists and politicians. For them, the predators became prey. Most disturbing of all is the ill treatment suspects receive while awaiting trial. Fortune-teller Suriyan “Mor Yong” Sujaritpolwong and Police Major Prakrom Warunprapha, arrested together for allegedly denigrating the monarchy in touting “royally initiated projects”, both died in custody in circumstances that can only be described as questionable.
Rather than directing protests against the US ambassador and other foreign critics of the lese majeste law, the military junta, the conservative elite and the ultra-nationalists should be addressing the points of contention. The law is clearly not being applied equitably or in the spirit with which it was promulgated. Rather than protecting the institute of the monarchy as intended, the law has been wielded by each successive government in the past decade as a blunt instrument for silencing political opponents. Its abusers are heedless of the damage caused to Thailand’s reputation as an ostensibly democratic country and, by extension, to the monarchy itself.
As framed in Article 112 of the Penal Code, the law prescribes three to 15 years’ imprisonment for “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has repeated the rationale that the law is necessary since members of the Royal Family are constitutionally barred from bringing suit against offenders personally. However, Prayut, like his predecessors, ignores the point of the criticism altogether.
The point is, as Davies asserted, that the punishment afforded by the lese majeste law is inappropriate to the crime. Citizens expressing an opinion, no matter how politically charged, should not be jailed for three years, and a 15-year sentence is indefensible. This is not deterrence. It is incentive to disillusionment, from which stems rebellion, the very outcome the authorities fear most.
Other countries have laws against criticising the monarchy, but they are rarely enforced and, when they are, the sentences are lenient. A great swathe of the British public routinely complains about the royal family there – UK royals are frequently mocked on mainstream television – and yet the monarchy remains strong and is widely admired as a socially cohesive institution.
Thailand and the palace have nothing to fear from criticism, but much to fear from those who abuse the law to serve their own needs.