Lèse majesté in Thailand: The junta’s most effective tool of oppression?

Photo: Jennifer Moo/CC BY-ND 2.0

Be careful about what you post. Lèse majesté laws could have been relaxed following the death of King Bhumibol but the ruling junta has taken them to the other extreme.

By John Pennington

Commit a murder in Thailand and you could spend as little as 20 years in jail. Share a picture of your absentee king in a crop top and the military will try to lock you away for 50 years or more. Criticism of members of the royal family – dead or alive – is taken exceptionally seriously and the lèse majesté laws are being applied increasingly rigorously.

The Bangkok Military Court set a world record – according to human rights monitoring group iLaw – when they recently handed down a 35-year jail sentence to Vichai Thepwong. He was arrested in December 2015 and eventually confessed to setting up a fake Facebook profile to share 10 video clips, pictures, and texts. He was charged with 10 lèse majesté violations, 11 defamation offences, and a breach of the Computer Crime Act.

When first apprehended, he denied the charges only to change his mind because he believed the quickest way to secure his release would be to serve a prison sentence and gain a royal pardon in the future. His sentence was duly halved from 70 years to 35 because he confessed. “It’s not beyond my expectations. It can’t be worse than this,” he said.

His was the latest in a string of heavy punishments

The previous record was the 30-year sentence handed to Pongsak Sriboonpeng for six Facebook posts. Like Thepwong, he had originally been given a 70-year term. An unnamed 29-year-old woman was sentenced to 28 years in jail – reduced from 56 after she pleaded guilty. Monta Yokrattanakan (known as Ying Kai) received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for pretending to be a royally appointed lady. She also denied the charge when arrested before she changed her mind and confessed.

Pro-democracy activist Jatupat Boonpatararaksa was arrested in December for sharing a post on Facebook profiling the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Anybody protesting his innocence has been warned that they too are breaching lèse majesté. The government complained vociferously when South Korea’s 18 May Foundation awarded Boonpatararaksa its annual human-rights prize.

The end of Bhumibol’s reign and the start of his son’s rule offered hope that the government might relax its stance on lèse majesté. However, the opposite is true. When an academic is investigated for questioning long-dead royals and their actions centuries ago, it is abundantly clear that the military and the police are applying the law more vigorously than ever.

The police are targeting people who view, as well as produce, the content

The police are now targeting people merely viewing content insulting the royal family, as well as those interacting with it and those producing it. Knowing what will happen if they stay in Thailand, most content producers have moved abroad.

For now, legal action against people viewing the material is not an option. As Pol Lt Gen Thitirait explained, “Police are acquiring tools to identify this group of viewers and investigate why they like watching [the content]. Watching lèse majesté content may be deemed wrongdoing.” The police will identify those who they track, talk with them, and warn them against going any further – sharing posts is a criminal offence, for example.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society warned users not to contact prominent critics of the government including exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun or even follow their Facebook pages. Unable to prevent people criticising the monarchy from abroad, where they have no jurisdiction, the government will instead try to prevent those views from gaining traction in Thailand.

The government went hard at Facebook but came off second best

In May, the junta issued Facebook with an ultimatum: block 309 pages that breached content laws or face legal action. The deadline passed and 131 of the pages – some of them displaying images of the king wearing a crop top in Germany – remained accessible and threats to ban Facebook in the country came to nothing.

More than a third of the pages that remained online were judged to be in breach of lèse majesté. But no action was taken as court orders did not make it to Facebook in time. The government backed down and is now working with the social media organisation.

They had no option because their strategy backfired spectacularly. Their attempts to browbeat Facebook into removing the posts simply drew more attention to the story and the posts themselves.

The junta is using lèse majesté as a tool to entrench their position

Thanks to the internet, Thais know much more about their new king than they ever did about Bhumibol. That is an uncomfortable truth for the junta which is going to extraordinary efforts to clamp down. As a result, lèse majesté cases have increased since Bhumibol’s death as the junta strengthens its hold over the country. The lèse majesté law gives them the means to prevent most criticism of the king or his suitability to rule from exposure.

The UN says the law has “no place in a democratic country”. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been equally critical. “With each passing year in power, Thailand’s junta falls deeper into a dictatorship,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said. “Pressure from Thailand’s friends is urgently needed to end repression and restore respect for basic rights that are essential for the country’s return to democratic civilian rule.”

Critics claim that the law is being used as a tool to stop dissent and as a way of preventing free speech. The military government insists it is necessary to protect the interests of the monarchy and national security. The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Three years into what was supposed to be an 18-month rule, the government is extending the scope of the lèse majesté laws as far as it can.  The longer they can silence opposition for, the easier it is for them to shift Thailand from a democracy into a dictatorship.