Tonight (8 pm, Tuesday, May 24, 2011), at the FCCT there will be a panel entitled “Lèse Majesté: A Challenge to Thailand’s Democracy”. Below is the blurb:

Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian at Thammasat University, is the latest victim of Thailand’s lèse majesté (LM) law, which carries a maximum 15-year jail term for violators. Bangkok’s remand prison is already filling up with others charged and arrested for the over 100-year law meant to protect the image of the country’s monarchy from words or actions deemed insulting. Among the 10 in jail currently waiting for their cases to go to court are Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a political activist and editor-in-chief of the Thailand-based Voice of Taksin and Red Power news magazines.

The spike in the number of LM cases since the September 2006 coup has consequently raised troubling questions about the rights of the freedom of expression and academic freedom in the kingdom. How does Thailand strike a balance between retaining this law, enforced through the Article 112 of the Criminal Code, and its commitment towards democracy? What is behind this trend towards a form of censorship unique in this region?

But the Thai government and officials are not the only ones faced with the daunting challenge of responding to such questions. Even respected international human rights organizations find themselves in the spotlight, reflected by a raging debate in the blogosphere about what should and should not be said.

The FCCT, in keeping with its tradition of being a space for free and open discussion on current and relevant issues, will be hosting a panel discussion by speakers who have been on the front lines of the LM debate. It promises to be an absorbing night.

The speakers are:
Sulak Sivaraksa, an internationally known social critic and Buddhist scholar, who has been charged many times with LM since his first case in 1984. The respected Thai public intellectual was found innocent of LM in 1995, a significant achievement given the high conviction rate for LM cases. The latest charge against him for comments made at a human rights event in 2007 in Khon Kaen was dropped in late 2010.

David Streckfuss, an independent America academic who has specialized in Thailand’s political culture, including the enforcement of Article 112. He is the author of the recently published book, ‘Truth on Trial in Thailand: defamation, treason and lese-majeste’, regarded by some as the definitive publication on the subject.

Benjamin Zawacki, Asia researcher for Thailand, Myanmar and for emergencies for Amnesty International, the London-based global rights watchdog.

A fourth speaker to reflect the official view of the LM law and its relevance to Thailand is still to be confirmed.

BP: You can read more here.

On the speakers, Sulak is recently quoted by Prachatai as stating:

On 18 May, the National Human Rights Commission’s Subcommittee on Civil and Political Rights held a discussion on the lèse majesté law, attended by academics, activists and individuals affected by the law.

Dr Niran Phitakwatchara, Chair of the Subcommittee, said that the Subcommittee was holding the discussion because it had recently received complaints from several parties about the cases of Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Somyos Phrueksakasemsuk.

Sulak Sivarak, who has in the past been charged repeatedly with committing lèse majesté despite claiming to be a royalist, said that the public needed to understand what the monarchy was for in a democracy. Thai people have never seriously discussed this issue. If the institution of the monarchy is to be conserved, how can it be maintained for the benefit of the majority of the people, he asked.

He said that the lèse majesté law, or Article 112 of the Criminal Code, had done more harm than good to the institution, and made a reference to the King’s speech on this point.

‘If we’re to maintain the institution, we must stop arresting people. The latest case is Somsak. I don’t really have much respect for him, and dislike him in many cases. But what Somsak has said, especially what was disseminated with the last issue of Fa Diew Kan magazine, is full of wisdom and good intentions toward the institution,’ Sulak said, referring to Somsak’s talk on 10 Dec last year which was distributed as a CD.

Sulak’s own latest case, which involved an interview published by the magazine, has already been dropped because, he said, it has reached the eyes and ears of HM and HM has ordered the case dropped. However, HM has been ill, and much effort has been made to block things from reaching him, Sulak said.

He said that the lèse majesté law, if it is to remain, would be the greatest hurdle to maintaining the institution, unless it was modified. For example, any complaints should be made only by the Office of HM’s Principal Private Secretary or the Privy Council and a committee should be set up to take care of this issue, he said.

BP: BP understands that Dr Niran is meant to be the fourth person in attendance as the person who to present the official view may not be able to attend.

On Amnesty International, BP has previously blogged on Amnesty International’s tepid response to lese majeste cases – see here, here and here. Having said that, in January this year, Amnesty International did put out a statement “THAILAND: REVERSE BACKWARD SLIDE IN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION” which BP blogged about here. You can also see this post from September 2010 in the aftermath of Chiranuch’s arrest where AI specifically called her a “prisoner of conscience” and criticized the use of lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act and stated that there was a “growing trend of censorship to silence peaceful political dissent”. Below is something that BP wrote in November 2010:

However, AI were very late to the party in criticizing lese majeste and BP still has the feeling they should be doing a little bit more to make their position clear. Chiranuch is facing 50 years in jail and it took them months to come up with something. What about Da Torpedo? Their criticism was very limited despite her being sentenced to 18 years in jail. BP can see nothing in regards the recent use of the Computer Crimes Act to block the release of videos about the Constitution Court – the judges threw in lese majeste as part of their complaint and went after Matichon (this worked, of course, as the latest Matichon Weekly was notably absent in talking about the clip released last week). For example, go to the Amnesty website and search for “Chiranuch”. There are two mentions. The same for Darunee/Da Torpedo. The UK author who was sentenced to 6 weeks jail in Singapore, well more than half a dozen mentions. Surely, someone sentenced to 18 years deserves a bit more attention. Now, BP understands that AI, in particular Benjamin Zawacki,  has been focusing on the Deep South and in particular Burma, but can’t others within Amnesty International speak up? They certainly were for the UK author.]

BP: There is another mention for Chiranuch for 2011. BP cannot find any mentions of Somsak or Somyot on the AI website

AI has also come under increasing pressure on the role of the International Secretariat of Amnestry International (specifically Benjamin Zawacki, AI Southeast Asia Researcher and Sam Zarifi, AI Asia-Pacific Director) in preventing a dialogue with Robert Amsterdam organised by AI Malaysia. See Benjamin’s response here. See also  CJ Hinke’s comment as quoted by Asia Sentinel:

Amnesty International enjoys the support of many rich, elite, overseas-educated Thais, many of whom bear Royal decorations,” said CJ Hinke, the head of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand and one of the signatories to the open letter. “AI is considered to be just liberal enough to provide the rich a halo of concern. That support will only continue as long as AI does not investigate Thailand’s own human rights violations in any great depth. Lèse majesté in particular.

BP: Andrew Spooner wrote a post entitled “Amnesty International in Thailand: Colluding with the state, now acting like a state” and published an e-mail sent by AI’s Benjamin to a third party. On Andrew’s post BP has the following comments:

1. BP thinks it is unwise for Benjamin to cite and state that Da Torpedo “was rather reckless in her language and either advocated violence against the king or came very close to doing so” and say this was the view that of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) contact. What an MFA contact says is irrelevant. It is poor judgment in citing (relying on?) an MFA official as an authoritative statement – perhaps, AI also concluded this from other sources, but these are not main known – but that doesn’t constitute collusion to BP.

2. Now, Benjamin could rely on the MFA contact in regards to the impression of the court judgment on why that “really sentenced her” and the action was taken, but that is just an understanding on *why* action was taken etc. That is a completely separate question to the Prisoner of Conscience issue.

3. Going on *memory*, Da’s words were very strong and she mentioned Russia, Nepal, and France with guillotines. One can argue that this is what differentiates her case with many of the other LM cases. Of course, a threat is different from defaming or insulting and carries a jail sentence in most countries. However, before denying someone POC status, AI should obtain a proper translation of the judgment and Da’s speech then seek a legal opinion in regards to whether the words constituted a threat/incitement before stating that Da advocated violence or came close to it. Not sure under which law, but perhaps Thai and/or British law (where AI is based). So concerns that BP has are about the *apparent* (because based on the e-mail this is still unresolved) process, but if AI followed the above and it was deemed to be a threat then can understand the position that AI have taken regarding the POC issue. AI should proper further clarity over what they have done and hopefully we will hear that tonight from Benjamin….