Fiery, emotional talk on lese-majeste

Fiery, emotional talk on lese-majeste

A recent forum to discuss the case of former the 'Voice of Taksin' editor brought back the debate on the controversial law and the often ambiguous standards behind its use

An emotionally charged forum on the lese majeste law and particularly the case of former Voice of Taksin editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk raised a host of issues surrounding the legislation and its enforcement.

V FOR VANQUISHED: Somyot Prueksakasemsuk before the verdict was delivered in his case at the Criminal Court last month.

The discussion, held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Thursday, was a deeply personal one for those in attendance, particularly Sakanya Prueksakasemsuk, the wife of Somyot who was sentenced late last month to 10 years in prison for publishing two articles deemed insulting to the monarchy. Also on the panel was Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachathai.com, who had her own experience with the law after being handed a suspended sentence last year for lese majeste-related charges under the Computer Crime Act.

The tone of the event veered from the personal and emotional to a more academic discussion of the specifics of the law, its interpretation and enforcement in a rapidly changing society.

Mrs Sukanya said that the articles published by her husband in his Voice of Taksin magazine did not mention His Majesty the King and there was no intent to defame the monarchy. She pointed out also that under the Printing Act of 2007 writers, not publishers, are legally accountable for material. In Somyot's case the court ruled that the Printing Act did not apply to lese majeste offences.

Chiranuch compared her own trial with that of Somyot. She was charged under Articles 14 and 15 of the Computer Crime Act (which defer to the Criminal Code), while Somyot was charged under Article 112. Both Chiranuch and Somyot were charged over material written by someone else _ in the Prachathai.com director's case for comments posted on the website's forum. Chiranuch also recounted how like Somyot she had been apprehended at an immigration checkpoint.

However, she said, the similarities ended there. Somyot was presented at court in heavy shackles, transported hundreds of kilometres to various provinces for hearings headed by several different judges and allowed only limited access to family and lawyers. Chiranuch was allowed bail and had unhindered access to lawyers and family.

She suggested that the different treatment the two received was because of an attempt to dehumanise Somyot.

Tul Sittisomwong, leader of the so-called multilcoloured shirt group, told the forum that it was inappropriate to look at the lese majeste issue from the perspective of human rights and free expression. Understanding the political context is crucial, he said.

While Mrs Sukanya had defended her husband as never having intended to offend the monarchy, Dr Tul argued that red shirt stage rhetoric had become so inflammatory that it was clear they desired a new state no longer defined as a constitutional monarchy. Somyot had been a prominent voice of that movement, he said.

David Streckfuss, lese majeste scholar and author of Truth on Trial in Thailand, compared Thailand's application of the law to that in Europe. Constitutional monarchies there _ in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain _ have lese majeste laws that include jail sentences of up to five years. The difference, Mr Streckfuss said, was that these laws are rarely enforced in these countries. Courts in these countries are aware that overzealous enforcement is likely to have the opposite effect to the intended preservation of the monarchy. Applying it for political ends would have a similarly negative effect.

The articles that sent Somyot to prison for 10 years are believed to have been penned by former PM's Office Minister Jakrapob Penkair under the pseudonym of Jit Polachan in the February and March 2010 editions of the Voice of Taksin magazine. (Jakrapob was never charged in connection with the articles). Both offending articles use ambiguous language and have an allegorical tone, though their publication in the red shirt-affiliated publication leaves little room for doubt that they were politically motivated.

Prosecution witnesses included two librarians who gave their interpretations of the texts. Their testimony was given pre-eminence by the judges.

The issue of interpretation in regards to whether material falls foul of lese majeste laws was also raised by a Matichon reporter who said that the newspaper's website had posted a poem on its website to honour HM the King. The poem raised the ire of several dozen royalists who interpreted it as offensive. The grey area surrounding interpretation and intent posed a challenge in the application of the law.

Others at the FCCT event also raised the point that what people post on Twitter and Facebook, usually intended only for a small group of friends or followers, can now be raised before the courts. Statements without any intention to defame the highest institution can be interpreted as politically subversive in such instances.

Aside from the complexities surrounding the law's enforcement, there is no doubt that the number of lese majeste cases has rocketed since the 2006 coup. Prior to that, in the 30 years following the October tragedy in 1976 at Thammasat University, the law was only ever applied sporadically.

Dr Tul said the escalation was proof of a movement to undermine the Thai state and its institutions, while Mr Streckfuss suggested it was due to a political and military will to preserve the status quo.

Chiranuch said the increase might be due to the injustice of one conviction leading to greater resistance to the law, leading to more charges, in turn sparking greater resistance.

Dr Tul has come out in favour of some amendments to Article 112 and its implementation, however he insisted that the law was as vital to Thai society as prohibitions against murder or drug trafficking. Like those laws, lese majeste cases serve to remind the public about what acceptable behaviour is in society. Somyot's case, he argued should be seen as a necessary action to protect the state and its institutions against a movement intent on undoing them. To repeal Article 112 would be tantamount to pulling out the foundations of Thai society.

Despite the increased number of successfully prosecuted lese majeste cases, Mr Streckfuss said there was room for optimism.

When delivering its verdict in Somyot's case, the chief judge of the Criminal Court Thawee Prachuablarb gave the reasons behind the decision. ''The court's procedure showed the articles which Mr Somyot published did not contain academic views of the monarchy. The articles were insulting in nature.''

The clarification helped give citizens and those in media and publishing a clearer idea of what is acceptable regarding the public discussion of the lese majeste law, Mr Streckfuss said.

Ezra Kyrill Erker

Writer

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