The Thai government has recently re-engineered its communication strategy vis-à-vis critics of the monarchy. Since late 2017, no lèse-majesté cases have been filed. The new move, however, fails to guarantee the return of the freedom of speech. Discussions of the monarchy are still strictly prohibited under other measures.
Lèse-majesté is defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code — insulting comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable up to 15 years in prison. In the past decade, the lèse-majesté law had been discursively used as a weapon to undermine political opponents. But the abuse of the law caused serious damage to the royal institution. Thailand was fiercely criticized by international human rights groups.
The reign of King Vajiralongkorn is accompanied by a sea change in the use of lèse-majesté law. In a meeting with Vajiralongkorn in 2018, social critic Sulak Sivaraksa said that it was the king’s initiative that no new lèse-majesté cases be filed. Sulak said, “He has a bad public image, he acknowledges. He is very concerned with the survival of the monarchy and whether this country could be really democratic. I think the king is wise. He wants the monarchy to be more open and more transparent.”
That the new king aspired for democracy is highly questionable; critics of the monarchy continue to be prosecuted and harassed by the state.
Imitating the behavior of modern authoritarians elsewhere, Vajiralongkorn has emerged as a “sophisticated monarch,” replacing the use of the barbaric lèse-majesté law with the soft measure of manipulating information to control the public’s opinion about him. Accordingly, new guidelines by the Attorney General were issued about the management of lèse-majesté cases. From now, the Attorney General will decide whether lèse-majesté cases will be filed in court. The public prosecutors no longer have the power to order prosecution of lèse-majesté cases. This soft approach package also included freeing some political prisoners charged with lèse-majesté. As part of celebration of the king’s coronation ceremony in 2019, several high-profile lèse-majesté convicts were granted a royal pardon.
He is not alone in making this choice. “Informational autocrats” mimic democracy by convincing their people that they are fond of human rights, rather than terrorizing them. A recent study by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman found that autocrats employ violent repression far less often than their predecessors did. Consequently, Thailand is now paying more attention to exploit modern information technology to embargo discussions deemed critical of the monarchy. One way is to enact the Computer Crime Act to deal with lèse-majesté charges.
The Computer Crime Act, in effect since 2017, is exercised to manage anti-monarchy elements. It defines computer crimes offenses and punishments for computer-related crime and cybercrime in a way that prevents anyone from criticizing certain institutions regarded important to national security, some of which involved lèse-majesté. Often in use is Section 14 (1), which stipulates that an act that involves import to a computer system of forged computer data, either in whole or in part, or false computer data, in a manner that is likely to cause damage to the third party or the public, shall be subject to imprisonment for not more than five years, or a fine of not more than 100,000 baht ($3,174), or both.
Critical comments against the monarchy are arbitrarily translated into “false data,” hence violating the Computer Crime Act. Of course, in Thailand, proving the falsification of data about the monarchy is itself unlawful. Moreover, Section 116 of the Criminal Code, known as the “sedition act,” is occasionally used to penalize Thai critics.
Thai lawyers for Human Rights in Thailand issued a statement admitting that although the Thai authorities are now reluctant to press lèse-majesté charges, charges invoking other laws continue to be an important tool to restrict freedom of expression and purge dissenters within the society. There are multiple cases involving Thais originally charged with lèse-majesté who had those charges dismissed. But they were convicted on computer crime instead.
The other method for controlling information has been the blocking of websites. A research study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), Sinar Project, and the Thai Netizen Network shows that from November 2016 to February 2017, 13 websites across six different ISPs were blocked, including foreign news outlets (nypost.com and dailymail.co.uk) and materials from Wikileaks.
In 2017, it was reported that Facebook and YouTube had blocked access from Thailand to over 1,800 pages containing anti-monarchy materials. Today, Facebook continues to comply with the demand of the Thai government in removing materials and photos considered insulting to the Thai monarchy.
In May 2020, I set up a Facebook group — Royalists Marketplace — as a platform of discussions about the monarchy. To date, the number of members has surpassed half a million. This alarms the state immensely. Still, it relies on soft measures to handle criticism. Once lèse-majesté was reported, the police would visit the accused at their home or workplace. The police would talk to the accused, intimidating them with jail terms, and eventually forcing them to sign a paper to affirm that they would no longer post critical comments of the monarchy. But no arrest was made.
The shift to a soft approach is sophisticated, and in some ways, legitimate, as it has been underpinned by a collective effort from pro-monarchy state agents, on top of the vigilante group. From the judges and the police, to the army and officials in the ICT, they all serve as defenders of the monarchy, thus making the new legal process as effective as the lèse-majesté law, but without the lèse-majesté law remaining in the picture today.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.