A Thai group began a public campaign to change a law protecting King Bhumibol Adulyadej from criticism amid a rising number of cases, resisting pressure from the military and royalist groups to avoid discussing the topic.
Hundreds of people in a standing-room only crowd at Bangkok’s Thammasat University cheered yesterday as the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 listed proposed changes to the law, including reducing the maximum jail sentence to 3 years from 15 years. It aims to gather 10,000 signatures over the next 112 days, a move that would allow lawmakers to consider the bill under Thailand’s constitution.
The lese-majeste law “has become a weapon for intimidation, harassment and incitement of hatred among people,” Kritaya Archavanitkul, a scholar at Mahidol University, told yesterday’s gathering. “Article 112 is also a critical factor that has undermined freedom of expression.”
Wider debate over the lese-majeste law threatens to revive political unrest that has led to street battles over the past five years in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. The U.S., European Union and United Nations have called on Thailand to respect freedom of speech following convictions last year.
“The fault line is now centered on the role of the monarchy in Thai democracy and the battleground is this inviolability of Article 112,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Bangkok. “It has the makings of a nasty face-off in the longer term.”
King Bhumibol, who turned 84 last month, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.”
The lese-majeste law, which falls under Article 112 of the criminal code, mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. The group aims to reduce the maximum penalty to 3 years for the king and two years for other royals.
The campaign is also seeking more clarity on what is an offense under the law and special exemptions for “good-faith” criticisms or truthful claims made in the public interest. In addition, the proposal would prevent anyone except the king’s principal private secretary’s office from bringing charges.
The number of lese-majeste cases before the lower courts increased to 478 in 2010 from 33 in 2005, a year before the coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to statistics compiled by the Article 112 campaign committee. Many attendees yesterday wore red, a color associated with pro-Thaksin rallies in 2010.
Not Too Democratic
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, took power on Aug. 9 after her Pheu Thai party won a majority in July elections. Her government has sought to close websites that insult the king and opposed efforts to change the law, a position it shares with the military.
“I keep watch,” Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post on Dec. 21. “Our country is democratic but things should not go too far.”
The campaign follows a similar proposal from a reconciliation committee established by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva after violence in 2010 that claimed more than 90 lives. That group called for the maximum sentence to be reduced to seven years and for a palace official to determine whether to proceed with prosecution. Currently, any Thai citizen can lodge a lese-majeste complaint with the police.
“Certain parties have used this article as a political tool and have invoked the name of the royalist cause for self-serving reasons,” reconciliation committee chairman Kanit Nanakorn wrote in an open letter to Yingluck on Dec. 30. The public should “encourage and support such an amendment in order to bring about peace and reconciliation in our country.”
U.S. citizen Joe Gordon, who was born in Thailand and also goes by the name Lerpong Wichaikhammat, received a 2 1/2-year prison sentence on Dec. 8 for translating an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol and posting it on a website. Two weeks earlier, Ampol Tangnoppakul, 61, received a 20-year jail term for sending four text messages that defamed Queen Sirikit.
Hundreds of Thai royalists called for U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney to “get out” of the country in a rally last month after a State Department official questioned the conviction. State Department spokesman Mark Toner had said Dec. 8 the U.S. is “troubled by the outcome” of Gordon’s case.
The European Union delegation in Thailand said Nov. 28 it was “deeply concerned” about Ampol’s sentence and urged Thai authorities to uphold freedom of expression. The UN human rights office said Dec. 9 the law had a “chilling effect” on free speech and called for it to be amended.