Thailand and Lèse Majesté

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws are notoriously tough. But are they being used to score political points?

I should probably start with a little background. I lived in Thailand in 2008 when I was volunteering with an NGO, and I loved it there: the people, the culture, the food. I hope to go back one day.

Yet, although nowhere is perfect, I feel particularly wary about criticizing a certain aspect of this country, namely the monarchy.

Despite being a constitutional monarchy since 1932, the Thai Royal Family still holds a prominent place in the country’s political affairs. Of course most of the time, the monarchy is largely symbolic. But it has still often intervened during periods of political instability – such as the country’s myriad military coups – to provide a mediating voice aimed at helping the nation’s actors resolve their differences.

I’ve argued in the past that the monarchy’s influence was greatly diminished during the “Red Shirt” street protests that rocked the country in 2010 and which claimed more than 100 lives. The King, perhaps weakened by old age, appeared to have little to say on the issue, and when he did he seemed to be largely ignored.

In a sense, this is curious. The King is beloved by virtually all of his subjects due to his image of benevolence and generosity. However, when I lived in Thailand, the resident director of the organization I was working for warned me and the other volunteers never to say anything negative about the monarchy, because Thailand hands out some of the world’s harshest prison sentences for violating lèse majesté laws. Indeed, we were warned that if paper money was ever blown out of our hands, that we shouldn’t step on it to stop it floating away as Thai baht bills have a picture of the King on the front, and anyone stepping on his image risks a jail term for doing so.

These lèse majesté laws returned to international attention this year with two high-profile cases. In May, a Thai-American citizen was arrested after he translated parts of a banned biography of the King and posted them on the internet. The man was sentenced to 30 months in prison, a sentence that earned a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

Then, in November, a 61-year-old man was given 20 years for a series of controversial text messages that he had sent the previous year. Ampon Tangnoppakul, also known as “Akong” (Thai for Grandpa), became the center of an online campaign organized by Thai journalists and human rights advocates to pressure the monarchy to pardon the elderly and sick grandfather.

King Bhumibol, for his part, has actually called for more criticism, and usually does issue clemency for law violators; it’s important to note that the Thai government, not the monarchy, is responsible for bringing charges of lèse majesté against individuals.

With the abolition of absolute monarchies, lèse majesté laws would seem to fall under the description “archaic.” However, politicians in Thailand looking to gain public favor by appealing to the sanctity of the monarch have politicized the issue to such a degree that even elderly and infirm citizens find themselves at risk of jail. It’s one aspect of the country that it is difficult to embrace.