Thailand: where ‘insulting’ the King gets you locked up



In Thailand, any criticism of the King or a member of the royal family may result in up to 15 years imprisonment for the perpetrator. Article 112 of the Penal Code punishes any word or deed that “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”.

Anyone can file a complaint for lèse-majesté. The police must then carry out an investigation.

At present, the majority of prosecutions for the crime of lèse-majesté are brought by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) or by supporters of the “yellow shirts” (royalist militants), but recently, Article 112 has been used by people of every political persuasion.

The victims of these accusations include politicians, labour activists and even ordinary citizens.

Opponents to Article 112 point out that even the current monarch, 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej (who recently left hospital for the first time since 2009) has criticised the law acknowledging in a 2005 speech that:

“the King can do wrong. Actually, I must be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.”

However, this did not prevent a sharp increase in the number of lèse-majesté complaints brought before the courts between 2006 and 2010 (from 30 to 478 cases). This increase is partly due to the political instability which followed the 2006 military coup but it is worth mentioning that in 2011, the number of complaints fell to 84 cases.

One of the most notorious trials in 2013 has been that of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, the activist, journalist and former coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) in Thailand. Somyot was arrested in April 2011, five days after launching a petition that aimed to gather 10,000 signatures calling for a parliamentary revision of the lèse-majesté law.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the 23 January 2013 by the Criminal Court in Bangkok on account of two articles published in a magazine of which he was Editor and that were considered insulting to the monarchy.

The court added an extra year to his sentence for another defamation offence committed previously.


Derisory evidence

To many observers, the weakness of the evidence and the severity of the sentence show that it was above all Somyot’s support for a legal revision of the lèse-majesté law that posed a problem for the courts – more so than the articles whose offensive nature vis-à-vis the royal family was never proven.

The first article was a story about a family that carried out massacres to keep them in power, the other was a story about a ghost that haunts Thailand and plans killings.

The court considered that the royal family and the King were being targeted by these stories.

But Dr Suthachai Yimprasert, a history professor at the University of Chulalongkorn in Bangkok told Equal Times that:

“It should not be possible to secure a conviction on the basis of such weak evidence. These stories did not insult the King but in Thailand it is the court’s opinion that counts, not the strength of the evidence.”

Somyot is currently in jail in Bangkok.

“The conditions of his detention are marginally better than those of the other prisoners because he was sent to the section for new prisoners which is not as crowded as the others,” says Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk, Somyot’s wife and spokesperson for the campaign fighting for his release.

“Some sections house more than fifty prisoners per cell, many of whom suffer from contagious diseases such as tuberculosis. In Somyot’s section, there are ‘only’ seven or eight prisoners per cell. This is still very hard particularly in summer when the temperatures reach between 40°c and 42°c. He cannot sleep at the moment and his health is deteriorating.”

Somyot is holding on to the faint hope of bail while he waits for his case to be reviewed on appeal. But Sukanya specified that: “An appeal takes between two and five years and is limited to a re-examination by the judge of the legal arguments put before him unless he decides to call new witnesses.

“If the Court of Appeal renders the same verdict, we can then appeal to the Supreme Court, which could take 10 years! Somyot is really trying to stay positive but his mood fluctuates. We all know that no one has ever been released on bail for this type of crime prior to a ruling, but he does not want to give up.”

In recent years, foreigners have also been convicted of lèse-majesté offences but they usually receive a royal pardon and are deported.

Several academics, writers and Thai campaigners for workers’ rights have left the country for fear of being arrested on the basis of this law.

This is the case of Junya Lek Yimprasert, founder of the Thai Labour Campaign. An accusation of lèse-majesté was made against her in 2013. “

Three of my friends were interviewed by the DSI and the Attorney-General who asked them questions about me. They were told that the interview was in relation to my article entitled ‘Why I don’t love the King’. Four workers’ rights campaigners are currently in exile on account of the lèse-majesté law,” she says.


A revered king

King Bhumibol does not fulfil any official political role but he is revered by the majority of his countrymen.

This devotion leaves the door wide open to truly ridiculous interpretations of Article 112.

Sukanya points out that: “Last April, a television talk show invited academics to discuss the monarchy as an institution without referring to individuals. This is all it took for people to go after the TV station and the show’s participants.”

The judgements handed down often make the Thai justice system look ridiculous.

For example, Amphon Tangnoppakul was a 61-year-old man sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for sending four SMS deemed insulting to the monarchy (he received four consecutive five-year terms for each SMS).

Nicknamed ‘Uncle SMS’, Amphon Tangnoppakul always proclaimed his innocence, stating that he does not even know how to send an SMS. However, he died of cancer in prison on 8 May, 2012.

In 2012, a new petition to revise the law on lèse-majesté was signed by almost 30,000 people.

One of the proposed key amendments was that only people with a link to the King could lodge a complaint for lèse-majesté. It was rejected by the parliament.

In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra – sister of the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup – won the general election by a landslide.

Her Pheu Thai party currently leads the ruling coalition which, despite being considered less royalist than the previous government, declared that it has no intention of amending the law on the crime of lèse-majesté despite pressure from the international community (among others, the Committee of Experts of the ILO on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has urged the Thai Government to take the necessary measures to repeal or amend section 112 of the Criminal Code).

The political situation remains very unstable in Thailand and the threat of a new uprising by the army or the ‘yellow shirts’ – who are extremely sensitive to any perceived attacks on the monarchy – has dampened the enthusiasm of those in the ruling party who would like to see a loosening of this law.