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While Hollywood celebrates creative achievements, Thailand punishes artistic freedom

On the morning of Monday, February 23, the live broadcast of the 87th Academy Awards from Los Angeles will be broadcast in Thailand. Almost simultaneously, at 1:00 pm, an entirely different type of show will be staged at the Criminal Court in Bangkok.

Two members of the now-defunct Prakai Fai (‘Sparking Fire’) theatre group, Pornthip Munkong aka Golf and Patiwat Saraiyaem aka Bank, will be sentenced to jail terms under the draconian Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. Article 112 imposes jail terms for those who defame, insult, or threaten the King, the Queen, the Heir to the throne, or the Regent. Those who are found guilty of violating Article 112 face prison terms of three to 15 years.

What was the crime that Golf and Bank committed? They performed in a political play called Jao Sao Maa Paa (‘Wolf’s bride’). The play was staged at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on 13 October 2013 and was part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 14 October 1973 student uprising against the military dictatorship of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. The play, which centered on a fictional monarchy, was deemed to have insulted Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. No further explanation of the details of Golf and Bank’s alleged offense can be made. This is because the inflexible application of Article 112 makes a recounting of lèse-majesté allegations a violation of Article 112 as well.

Golf and Bank have already pled guilty to the lèse-majesté charges. This should not to be construed as an acknowledgment of criminal responsibility. Unfortunately, the guilty plea is a strategic decision that, in most cases, earns lèse-majesté violators a significant reduction in their jail sentence.

Golf, a 26-year-old social activist, and Bank, a 23-year-old university student, were arrested in mid-August 2014. Since then, they have been detained at the Women’s Central Prison and the Bangkok Remand Prison respectively. As it is customary for lèse-majesté detainees, the court rejected their numerous requests for release on bail pending trial. Their incarceration meant that Golf could not pursue her plans to work overseas and Bank was forced to suspend his studies at Khon Kaen University. Prison authorities have imposed severe restrictions on their cultural activities. Their books have been confiscated and their communications with visitors are closely monitored.

In the meantime, authorities are zealously pursuing more individuals involved in the Jao Sao Maa Paa performance. Some of them have already fled the country for fear of being arrested under Article 112. They joined scores of students, activists, academics, and artists who left Thailand after the 22 May 2014 military coup.

Since the ruling military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), seized power, it has made it one of its top priorities to hunt down and prosecute lèse-majesté suspects. Since the coup, at least 40 people have been arrested under Article 112. Seven of them have already been sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 15 years.

Most of these cases present elements related to the right to freedom of expression and the right to take part in cultural life. These rights are guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) respectively. Thailand ratified both treaties and, as a result, has an obligation to comply with their provisions. Legislators must ensure that provisions of the ICCPR and the ICESCR are incorporated into Thai laws and judges should invoke clauses of the ICCPR and the ICESCR in their rulings. Even under Article 4 of the interim constitution unilaterally adopted by NCPO, Thailand must abide by international treaties to which it is a state party, such as the ICCPR and the ICESCR.

In violation of its international human rights obligations, the NCPO’s ongoing witch hunt for lèse-majesté suspects has completely failed to respect, protect, and fulfill these fundamental rights. The junta blocked websites and banned books that made reference to the Thai royal family. The military harassed member of the B-Floor Theatre Group because their show Bang-la-merd(‘District of violations’) contained references to Article 112. One lèse-majesté detainee, Siraphop Komarut, remains behind bars for writing a poem that alluded to the Thai monarch. In many cases, lèse-majesté charges hit individuals who shared opinions and content related to the monarchy through Facebook.

On Monday, while Hollywood celebrates creative achievements, Thailand will once again distinguish itself for punishing freedom of expression and artistic freedom. If Thailand does not want to hold this unenviable award for too long, it is time for the junta to end the misuse and abuse of Article 112. The UN has repeatedly expressed its concern over Thailand’s prosecution and harsh sentencing of individuals on lèse-majesté charges. The NCPO, in its quest for reconciliation, must acknowledge and comply with the international treaties to which Thailand is a state party. In addition, the junta must recognize the talent of Thai youth to creatively address social issues in a manner that is not menacing or threatening. In doing so, the NCPO should accept the UN’s recommendations and begin a constructive process of reform of the enforcement of Article 112 in order to bring it in line with its international human rights obligations.

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