Why Is Thailand Jailing More People for 'Insulting' the King?

Thai officials are enforcing Lèse-Majesté laws, already the strictest in the world, more aggressively than they have in decades

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Thailand's first female PM Yingluck Shinawatra after receiving the royal command appointing her as the country's new premier / Reuters

Over the past five years Thailand's Lèse-Majesté law, by far the strictest in the world, went from being scarcely used to being used an extraordinary number of times annually. According to a group of Thailand scholars, statistics from the Office of the Judiciary show a 1,500% increase in Lèse-Majesté cases in the past six years. In addition, Thailand has in recent years broadened the law in order to prosecute Thais who have allegedly insulted the monarchy on the Internet, in blogs, and using social media; one U.S. citizen recently was arrested in Thailand for just such a "crime."

Lèse-Majesté, indeed, has become a political weapon -- perhaps the most potent political weapon in Thailand -- even though the king himself has said that he is not above criticism and seems to dislike the law. Royalists in the military, the bureaucracy, and the Democrat Party have used it to crush dissent. Striking back, the Puea Thai opposition and its allies  have also in recent years used Lèse-Majesté against their political opponents. Whatever the original purpose for the law -- which actually largely fell out of use in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, a time when the monarchy was much weaker, that original purpose has vanished today. The rising use of Lèse-Majesté has grown concurrentlywith increases in censorship of all types, as well as self-censorship in the print and online media in Thailand.

Many Thais hoped that the July election of Yingluck Shinawatra and the Puea Thai party would mean a diminishing use of the Lèse-Majesté law, since Puea Thai's members and followers have themselves had the law used against them many times. Allies of Yingluck say that she is personally sympathetic to trying to reduce use of the law and reform it in the long run. After her election, for example, bloggers posted an interview she had given in which she said that she did not want the law to be misused.

But the first months of Yingluck's administration have not given much hope for advocates of free speech in Thailand. She has done nothing to address the highest-profile cases of Lèse-Majesté, including that of a famous blogger named Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, who is serving an eighteen-year jail sentence for Lèse-Majesté. The parade of Lèse-Majesté arrests has continued, including that of the aforementioned U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, Yingluck's government promised two weeks ago to clamp down even harder than in the past on people using computers to allegedly defame the monarchy.

A group of concerned scholars have submitted to Yingluck a public letter calling on her to review Thailand's laws on Lèse-Majesté and on cyber crimes. They also have called on her to push for the release on bail of people facing Lèse-Majesté charges, many of whom are being held without bail. So far, Yingluck and her cabinet have not given any signs that they are taking notice.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org

Presented by

Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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