Challenging Thailand’s Royal Taboo
By Aubrey BelfordApril 11, 2012
When someone is charged with insulting Thailand’s monarchy, they often go down without a fight. One woman is standing her ground in a landmark case for media freedom in the kingdom.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn does not appear to be the kind of woman to hold back on what she says. As director of Prachatai, an independent, nonprofit news site, she has worked from a tiny, cluttered office tucked into a Bangkok backstreet to shape one of Thailand's feistiest and most daring media outlets. Among the stickers on her ageing laptop is one phrase she already has had to use in her life: "Come back with a warrant."
But when it comes to the details of her case — 10 counts of insulting Thailand's revered monarchy, for which she faces up to 20 years in jail — she has to be a little indirect, lest we all get into a whole lot more strife.
"I can't tell you exactly the content, because if I did and you report it, then you're already violating the law again," Chiranuch says, searching for the right words to phrase what comes next.
The first comment for which she is in trouble, made in October 2008 on Prachatai's site, was an "indirect metaphor", she says. Read in one way, it could be interpreted as linking the palace to a September 2006 military coup against the elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
It's not as if the comment was hers in the first place. Rather, Chiranuch stands charged with being too slow to delete reader comments that appeared on Prachatai's online discussion threads. Her predicament is precisely what critics say is wrong with Thailand's laws against lèse majesté, which carry sentences as harsh as 15 years in jail for each count. It's hard to know exactly what kind of comment will land you in hot water, or when.
"The biggest effect of this law on free speech is that it's already created a climate of fear. Once people are living in a climate of fear, the people are doing their own self-censorship," Chiranuch says.
For Chiranuch, who is 44 years old, April 30 will be the day she finds out her fate.
Already, Chiranuch is doing something unusual: she is fighting the charges. In Thailand since the mid-1980s, the authorities have achieved a close to 95 per cent conviction rate in cases, according to David Streckfuss, an independent academic who studies Thai laws against insulting the monarchy. Faced with these odds, many people opt to plead guilty in the hope of leniency or a royal pardon.
But Chiranuch has chosen not to go down that road. Instead, she and her supporters have mounted a tenacious legal defence, arguing that she bears no responsibility for the comments as an intermediary and that she acted in good faith by deleting comments seen as insulting from the website, anything from between a few hours and a few weeks after they first were posted.
"Although I disagree with the law, I tried to comply and we tried not to violate the law," she says. "I did not do anything that would imply I intensively support or intensively consent to people to commit the crime."
Thailand's lèse majesté laws are like nothing else in the world. Originally implemented at the start of the 20th century, at a time when Thailand was ruled by an absolute monarchy, they were strengthened in the 1970s, long after the country had reduced the political role of the royal family, by a military junta intent on curbing dissent. Many are charged under Article 112 of the criminal code, which criminalises insults or threats against senior members of the royal family. Others, like Chiranuch, are charged under the 2007 Computer Crime Act.
Supporters of the laws say they are essential to shield the monarchy, particularly the long-reigning, 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej , from criticisms that would undermine its position as Thailand's main unifying force and a benevolent institution that exists above politics. Critics say they do something very different: allowing a well-connected powerful elite, as well as the military, to use the taboo around the monarchy to stifle debate and entrench its own power.
For a test of that argument, look no further than the statistics. According to Streckfuss, the big peak in lèse majesté cases came during the government of Thaksin, the coup that unseated him, and the ensuing violence and protests that pitted pro-Thaksin Red Shirts against royalist Yellow Shirts. According to Streckfuss, citing figures from the Office of the Judiciary, 1,035 charges of lèse majesté were sent to trial between 2005 and 2010 — and charges reached their most marked spike in 2007, immediately following the coup, and in 2009 and 2010, amid Red Shirt protests. Before 2005, courts were seeing fewer than half a dozen cases a year.
The populist Thaksin had offended Thailand's traditional Bangkok-centred elite with a combination of demagoguery, alleged corruption and populist social policies that gave millions of poorer Thais, particularly in the country's north and northeast, a stake in the system for the first time. The old elite responded by using the military to overthrow him, saying it was doing so to defend the monarchy.
Since a new Red Shirt-aligned government — led by the Pheua Thai party of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra — came to power in 2011, the number of fresh cases has dropped. But many older cases are still ongoing, and the Yingluck government has publicly distanced itself from any talk of reforming or removing the draconian laws. Its fear is that removing the law would prompt another coup, Streckfuss says. Since the start of the 20th century, Thailand has had about 20 coup attempts, some successful, others not .
"It's the ultimate 'We have to have a coup' reason," Streckfuss says, adding:
"I think lèse majesté represents a lynchpin holding together a nationalist identity structure, an economic and government system. It's the easiest tool to use against your enemies."
While the government has shied away from touching lèse majesté, some groups and individuals are dragging the law into public debate in "a new kind of bravery", Streckfuss says.
A group of legal academics at Bangkok's Thammasat University, called Nitirat (meaning "Enlightened Jurists"),have sparked discussion through proposals to reform Article 112 and annul the legal effects of the 2006 coup. Their proposals have been met with acrimonious protests and counter-protests. One of Nitirat's leaders, Worajet Pakeerat, after receiving threatening phone calls, was punched in the face on the Thammasat's campus in late February by twins who then fled on a motorcycle. The phone calls have recently stopped, he told The Global Mail in a brief phone interview.
"Anyone who stands and fights, it's significant in and of itself," says Streckfuss of Chiranuch. "If she is to be found innocent, that will be huge because it will be a recognition within the legal system, the justice system, that this law can't simply be used in any sort of way."
The laws are nowhere close to being lifted, but at least some debate is starting to emerge, he says.
If Chiranuch goes down, however, the case could further freeze Thailand's already distorted discussion about the role of the monarchy, she says. One parallel often drawn in the case is that prosecuting Chiranuch, whose website was merely an intermediary for carrying user comments, would be like prosecuting Mark Zuckerberg for anti-royal statements on Facebook. Already, she says, her case had encouraged self-censorship.
And it is not as if this is the only case against Chiranuch. She was arrested on the current charges in March 2009, after about 10 police showed up at her office. Worse she says, was when she arrested for a second time the next year on further charges, at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport. After a long flight from Europe, she was taken into a police car and driven five hours to the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, where the charges had been filed. This second case has not yet been passed to prosecutors.
If Chiranuch wins at the end of the month, she may be spared the other charges. If she loses, however, it will be the next stage of a long ordeal bound to play out through Thailand's courts. "I think we did quite well in our defence. So as a kind of optimistic person I still have a hope that I'll be acquitted," she says.
So far, Chiranuch is not considering pleading guilty or asking for a pardon. The way the law is abused now is of no benefit to the monarchy, she says. Instead, it promotes fear and creates an environment where people furtively trade gossip about palace intrigue because no rational debate around the monarchy exists, she says, again picking over her words.
"There are also groups of people among the elite that benefit from the way the monarchy will be — this is difficult to say in a safe way — because they are the group that benefit from the way the monarchy could not be criticized at all."
Anyone talking about changing this attitude must deal with a society that has been shaped by an extraordinary personality cult that has been built up around King Bhumibol over decades. If there are rumblings of misgivings out there, they are barely noticeable above ubiquitous advertising extolling the virtues of the royal family and their good works alongside serene, soft-focus portraiture. That the king is universally loved is treated as indisputable.
At Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital, Phawat Prasitthisuphaporn, a 20-year-old liberal arts student from Bangkok's Mahidol University, was one of scores who gathered last Friday outside the hospital, where King Bhumibol now lives, to catch a glimpse of the ageing monarch heading to a royal cremation ceremony.
All along the roads between the hospital buildings, police and military, including the bomb squad and a waiting SWAT van, line the route. A sharp hand gesture from one policeman, and everyone sits in a hushed reverie. As the cream coloured royal vans roll by, the devotees raise their joined palms, releasing them only as the convoy turns out of sight and the officers pivot and click their heels.
Phawat is overwhelmed by his first sighting of the royals. "There's no words. I, like, can't say anything. The tears are almost coming out," he says.
The fact that anyone would criticise the king just makes no sense to him, he says. The laws to protect the monarchy are self-evidently right. Debate seems pointless.
"It's always like this. Just — it's the king. I think that's enough reason. He's done so many things for the Thai people," he says. "Those people who criticise him, what do they do?"