Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wall Street Journal and Thai Lese Majeste Law

In Thailand, Insulting the King Can Mean 15 years in Jail

Jame Hookway

Wall Street Journal

Thailand's strict law against offending the monarchy, therefore, seems almost superfluous. King Bhumibol himself has said he doesn't need it, and he has lodged no charges. But politicians keep the 100-year-old law alive to score points against their enemies as they jostle for power in a period of political turmoil.

"It's the ultimate weapon in Thai society," says Jakrapob Penkair, a 40-year-old former government minister who is now trying to stay out of jail after rivals accused him of maligning the monarchy. "If you can accuse somebody of insulting the king, then you've gone a long way toward eliminating them."

The past few months have seen a spike in cases of lèse-majesté, as the crime is formally known, as the political temperature here has climbed.

Political activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was arrested and imprisoned without bail in July for allegedly insulting the monarchy at a pro-government rally. She told reporters after her arrest that she was just speaking the truth.

Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul was charged with the crime for reporting what Ms. Daranee allegedly said, this time at an antigovernment rally. Mr. Sondhi says he isn't worried about his case.

Police are also investigating allegations against British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Jonathan Head for, among other things, allowing a picture of a politician to be placed above a picture of King Bhumibol on a BBC Web site. The BBC denies the allegations and says it is cooperating with the police investigation.

And Harry Nicolaides, an Australian author and college lecturer, was arrested Aug. 31, for allegedly insulting members of the royal family by publishing a fictional account of their private lives in a novel he put out in 2005.

Denied bail, he is being held in a Bangkok prison in a cell with 90 other men. A spokesman for the Australian government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says letters of apology from Mr. Nicolaides and his family have been delivered to the Royal Palace in Bangkok. According to Mr. Nicolaides, only 50 copies of the self-published book were ever printed, and just seven were sold. No trial date has been set; if found guilty, Mr. Nicolaides faces up to 15 years' imprisonment. Mr. Nicolaides says he didn't intend to offend the royal family and is sorry for any distress he has caused. "Let everybody know I'm sorry and I didn't mean to upset anybody," he says.


Police are also obliged to investigate every complaint. That's how a local student was sucked into the fray after refusing to stand during the playing of Thailand's royal anthem before a screening of the Lindsay Lohan film "I Know Who Killed Me."

The anthem is played before movies are shown in Thailand, and while standing isn't compulsory, everybody is still expected to do it. Chotisak Onsoong, 27, refused and was pelted with popcorn and smacked with rolled-up movie fliers by others in the audience. One filed a police complaint against Mr. Chotisak. He is still being investigated.

The controversy has turned Mr. Chotisak's life upside down. A thick-set young man with long, wavy hair, he is seeking refuge in a series of safe houses after a Thai newspaper published his address. "I'm afraid to travel by bus, so I have to go by taxi, and I wear a baseball cap and sunglasses to disguise my appearance," he says, anxiously fingering his mobile phone and keeping his head down when people pass him on the street.

He says he didn't intend to insult King Bhumibol personally but insists he has a right to choose whether to stand for the royal anthem. Mr. Chotisak says his parents, while offering their support, are also regularly visiting Buddhist temples. "They think a curse has been placed on me, and they are paying penance in order to lift it," he says.

The problems of Mr. Jakrapob, the former government minister, began when he delivered a speech to foreign correspondents last October. The gist of it was that some Thais were banding together in support of the monarchy in a bid to end the country's one-person, one-vote democracy.

That was enough for politicians to press the police into prosecuting Mr. Jakrapob, with the leader of the opposition accusing him of harboring "a dangerous attitude" toward the monarchy.

Jakrapob at FCCT

Da Torpedo's Speech --Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul

Interview with Harry Nicolaides Mother

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