In November 2011, the government of Thailand convicted a 61-year-old man for insulting the country’s monarchy in four text messages. Under Thailand’s lèse majesté law—one of the strictest in the world—Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison, or 5 years for each text. Tangnoppakul’s sentence preceded two other highly publicized convictions in December. A Thai-US citizen was sentenced to 30 months for translating and posting online passages of a banned biography of the King. Shortly thereafter, a Red Shirt political activist was sentenced to 15 years for speeches made in 2008. Thailand has seen an increase from 33 lèse majesté cases in 2005 to 478 by 2010. These three cases in particular have triggered international expressions of concern and much domestic debate and activism in a struggle for the future of freedom of expression in Thailand in 2012.
The lèse majesté law is set forth in Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, which decrees without any further explanation that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir to the throne or the Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” Before 2006, Article 112 had been used most frequently by political elites to attack each other’s devotion to the monarchy, which became a proxy for targeting enemies with dissenting political views. Any citizen can bring a lèse majesté complaint to police, and trials are often closed to the public. Thailand has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1996, Article 19 of which obligates the country to protect the rights of individuals who seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Nevertheless, supporters of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy deny the law’s harsh effect on freedom of expression. Instead, they cite the need to protect the monarchy as an institution to justify continued enforcement of Article 112.
Article 112 is often used in conjunction with the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) of 2007 to block lèse majesté content. Under this law, 117 judicial orders have blocked 75,000 Internet URL addresses in Thailand since 2007. The CCA’s vague language targets Internet users, their online hosts, or other intermediaries ostensibly related to the downloading or posting of data that amounts to an “offense against the kingdom’s security under the criminal code.” The combined effect of the two laws is to expose a large number of Thais to what some observers such as Human Rights Watch criticize as politically motivated prosecutions encouraged by royalist supporters. As one example, webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn is still awaiting a ruling in her case, where she was referred to police in 2010 by another citizen for not removing online posts critical of the monarchy from the Prachatai newspaper’s website. This hostile attitude towards online intermediaries has also led Thai authorities to warn Facebook users that sharing or liking certain messages could expose them to lèse majesté penalties. The Thai government has additionally asked Facebook to remove 10,000 pages of what it perceives to be royal insults.
Thailand underwent its Universal Periodic Review in early October 2011, where 14 member states recommended amending or repealing Article 112. A few days later, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank la Rue issued a statement calling for amendments to both Article 112 and the CCA. According to the Special Rapporteur, the laws are overly broad and impose harsh criminal sanctions unnecessary to preserve Thailand’s monarchy or national security. Such international pressure was met domestically with a December “Fearlessness Walk,” where lèse majesté opponents stood silent for 112 minutes. Reactions in support of Article 112 were also seen in Bangkok in December, when protesting Thai royalists defended the law in front of the US embassy. In this way, international attention has contributed to vigorous debate of lèse majesté within Thailand.
Despite criticism, the government’s pursuit of convictions under Article 112 show a continuing resolve to politicize the monarchy in Thailand’s fragile political landscape. While Thailand’s Facebook users contemplate the latest lèse majesté convictions, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung recently announced plans to spend $12.6m in technology that will intercept and block online content critical of the monarchy. In an effort to diffuse tensions, Thailand’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has announced its support of reforms to Article 112. These changes would give lighter sentences for convictions and better legal oversight of claims. The announcement was publicized at the same time as the National Human Rights Commission forming a task force to review the legality of lèse majesté enforcement. The results of the Commission’s report will be available in June 2012. Until then, international pressure, domestic debate, and investigations by impartial government institutions will continue to act as an engine for change.