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THAILAND: Lese Majeste Law Tests Mettle of Human Rights Groups

BANGKOK, Aug 31 (IPS) - Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law is steadily emerging as a testing ground for the principles that renowned international human rights lobbies stand for.

The customary routes groups like the Amnesty International (AI) in London and the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have pursued recently are similar. They have opted to remain silent – in public, at least – or offer tepid responses when the 100-year-old law is enforced. 

Yet how long these twin leaders of the global human rights movement can get away with such silence has been brought into relief by a verdict delivered in a Thai court on Aug. 28. The Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced a political activist to 18 years in prison for a speech she delivered in public that the three-judge bench ruled had insulted this kingdom’s revered monarchy. 

The 46-year-old Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul was found guilty of three violations of the lese majeste law, which threatens violators with a maximum of 15 years in jail for a single breach of tarnishing the image of the royal family. 

"The court finds she intended to insult and make threats to the king and the queen," one of the three judges said while reading the verdict. 

This ruling against Darunee – also known as ‘Da Torpedo’ for her trademark fiery rhetoric – is the harshest delivered by the courts in recent times. It follows a 10-year-jail sentence given to another Thai national in April for violating the lese majeste law for an image posted on the Internet. 

Darunee, a supporter of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 coup, was arrested in July and jailed after delivering a speech a few weeks earlier at a rally of pro-Thaksin supporters in Bangkok. Her efforts to be granted bail were denied. 

AI broke its long silence on lese majeste when Darunee’s case began in June this year. It criticised the court for ordering a closed trial of the proceedings, which a judge on the bench justified as a "matter of national security." 

But AI stayed clear of raising concerns if the law infringed on the right to freedom of expression. Public statements delivered earlier by HRW have also studiously avoided this fundamental right. 

"We have felt that working in a more private capacity than in a public way is the most appropriate and the most effective response on the lese majeste issue to date," says Benjamin Zawacki, South-east Asia researcher for AI. "There is an implicit knowledge of the sensitivity of this law." 

"There are competing interests at stake; one is the right to freedom of expression. But you have an institution here that has played an important role in the protection of human rights in Thailand," Zawacki explained in an interview. "We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected." 

The Bangkok-based Zawacki admitted, however, that the law has been abused. "The lese majeste law, as is currently applied in the last three years, has been used for the suppression of free speech for largely political purposes and not for the protection of the monarchy, for which the law was drafted," he says. 

Even regional media rights groups admit that the law poses a quandary. "We have had to acknowledge that the lese majeste law is a very sensitive topic in Thailand," says Roby Alampay, executive director of the Bangkok-based South-east Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). "There are groups that express caution and there are groups who are intimidated by how the law is wielded and enforced. It is intimidating even for human rights advocates." 

Yet, given the chance SEAPA, which has displayed some courage by issuing statements in the wake of lese majeste cases, tries to close the gap on this front. "We have said that all defamation laws in general must be decriminalised; even the lese majeste law," Alampay told IPS. "This has been a consistent call." 

Little wonder why the reluctance of leading human rights groups to lift the veil on what the lese majeste law implies in a developing democracy such as Thailand is under fire in some quarters. 

"The international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have done something that, in my opinion, were very small, light, mild, ineffective and careless," says Thongchai Winichakul, professor of South-east Asian studies at the U.S.-based University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They have been so lukewarm about the lese majeste issue in Thailand because they are primarily very bureaucratic." 

"(This) is a crime of conscience, thought crime, crime of speaking," Thongchai, a Thai national who recently organised an international campaign for the reform of the lese majeste law, said in an interview. "If AI and HRW do not stand to defend the victims of these crimes, what do they stand for?" 

Concerns about how the lese majeste law is being enforced in Thailand have grown in the wake of a spike in the number of complaints that have been filed with police. Currently, there are over 30 cases pending. Among those the police are investigating include cases against a former government spokesman who is an ally of Thaksin, a respected Buddhist philosopher, a leftist Thai academic who has fled the country and a political activist who refused to stand up during the royal anthem played ahead of all movie screenings at cinemas. 

In addition, the crime suppression division of the police recently admitted to foreign journalists that the information and technology ministry wants some 5,000 websites investigated for possible violation of the lese majeste law. 

Earlier, the justice ministry revealed that over 10,000 websites were being monitored for comments that allegedly defamed the monarchy. The authorities have also reportedly invested 42.2 million baht (1.28 million U.S. dollars) to establish an Internet firewall to block websites that have anti-monarchy remarks. 

The language in the current constitution is unequivocal in King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s standing in this South-east Asian kingdom. "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action," the 2007 charter states. 

The 81-year-old monarch has been on the throne for over 60 years. 

This unique feature of the Thai culture may have also shaped the attitudes of human rights groups in responding to the lese majeste law, says David Streckfuss, author of ‘Modern Thai Monarchy and Cultural Politics’. "Many international human rights organisations have seemed to accept the uniqueness of Thai uniqueness and made an exception in Thailand for the lese majeste law." 

"They seem to fall into the romance that certain aspects of Thai culture are untouchable," the U.S. national specialising in Thai politics told IPS. "It is possible this began as a strategy more than a decade ago when lese majeste cases were less prominent." (END/2009) 


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