The Thai monarchy, the UN, lèse majesté, and freedom of speech: Who is disrespecting who?

Photo: Jennifer Moo/CC BY-ND 2.0

The UN has become the latest organisation to condemn Thailand’s lèse majesté laws that prevent criticism of the royal family. Will the new king take any notice?

by John Pennington

United Nations envoy David Kaye did not hold back when he spoke out strongly against the first defamation case brought by new Thai monarch Maha Vajiralongkorn. Pro-democracy activist Jatupat Boonpatararaksa was arrested and detained in December for sharing via Facebook a BBC-written profile of the new king.

He was one of thousands to have shared the post, but he alone was prosecuted, prompting Kaye to comment, “Public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, may be subject to criticism, and the fact that some forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify restrictions or penalties.”

Lèse majesté laws shield the Thai monarchy from public criticism

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws are among the strictest in the world and were designed specifically to protect royal family members from insults or threats. Under the laws, an accusation can be made against anyone, the police must investigate all complaints and details of charges are hardly ever published in case any offensive remarks are repeated.

The Thai monarchy is therefore seldom exposed to serious criticism as the lèse majesté laws means the media in Thailand must rigidly self-censor. The laws do not apply to anything written or published outside of the country, however.

The internet has changed perceptions of the monarchy in Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyedaj, who died in 2016, was hugely loved and respected, and the lèse majesté laws helped further his image. His son is nowhere near as popular and thanks to the internet, his citizens know about his three divorces, his lifestyle, and his character.

Furthermore, the widely-shared BBC profile of the new king was written in Thai, giving it a wide audience in the country. Social media simply allows criticism to be spread much further and much quicker than older forms of media and little can be kept secret from the public for long.

Calls to repeal the laws are likely to fall on deaf ears

Kaye said that such laws, “have no place in a democratic country,” and called for Thailand to repeal them. However, the chances of that happening are extremely remote while an authoritarian government made up of pro-royalist generals runs the country. Furthermore, even those with diplomatic immunity – such as US ambassador Glyn Davies – are not beyond being investigated for royal defamation.

However, King Maha is making early moves to assert himself and control the junta and military, which suggests that change may come, including the possibility of a return to political competition within the country. But what happens when and after Boonpatararaksa stands trial could give onlookers a clue as to what the future holds for lèse majesté cases in Thailand.

Boonpatararaksa will plead not guilty to the charges

Boonpatararaksa, nicknamed Pai, will now face trial and plead not guilty to the charges of defamation and breaching Thailand’s cyber-crime law for sharing the profile. “Pai denied all charges,” his lawyer Atipong Poopiw said. “We decline to disclose details of how we will fight this case.”

In 2005, King Bhumibol hinted that even the monarchy should not be above the criticism of its people. “Actually, I must also be criticised,” he said. “I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.” His words were not borne out with action.

Lèse majesté cases increased following the 2006 military coup against Thaksin Shinawatra. There were more than 400 lèse majesté cases in 2010, and after the National Council for Peace and Order came to power in 2015, there followed an “unprecedented” number of cases in the early months of their rule.

The UN may not be ‘respecting’ the monarchy but they are far from alone

Applying the letter of the lèse majesté laws in Thailand, you could argue that Kaye – and by association the UN – is disrespecting the monarchy by criticising the defamation case against Boonpatararaksa.

These laws have been used to prosecute people posting photos to Facebook and engaging in casual conversation in the back of a taxi. Small wonder that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the laws and demanded that they be repealed.

“The authorities’ vicious application of the lèse majesté law has left dozens of individuals in jail for the peaceful exercise of their rights, with some facing military trials without the right of appeal,” Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research, said.

Can the UN succeed where others have failed? With the following enshrined in the constitution, “the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action,” it is hard to see how they will manage it any time soon.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.