By Saksith Saiyasombut

Earlier this month, a 23-year-old graduate from the Kasetsart University has been arrested for allegedly posting content on his blog that is deemed insulting to the monarchy – also known as lèse majesté. Prachatai and The Nation’s Pravit Rojanaphruk (and unsurprisingly no one else) with the details:

The person who filed the charge was said to be a vice rector for students affairs, who reportedly said he was pressed to file the charge by the University Council and that the complaint was filed in a bid to protect the university’s “reputation”. (…)

The man made remarks on his blog that were allegedly offensive to the monarchy while he was a senior student at the university. These were apparently first spotted by fellow students, prachatai.com reported.

He faces charges both under the lese majeste law, which carries a maximum 15-year jail term, and the Computer Crimes Act, which has punishment of up to five years in jail.

Student held for alleged lese majeste“, The Nation, August 7, 2011

Meanwhile, Prachatai reports that he has been released on bail. This student, whose name and picture has been widely published, is another victim of Thailand’s infamous Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as lèse majesté. In recent years, this law has been excessively abused, the number of such cases has skyrocketed from just a few cases in 2006 to almost 500 in 2010 and, in conjunction with the equally controversial 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA), thousands of websites have been shut down. On the other hand, due to the volatile political atmosphere in Thailand, it has enabled an excessive witch-hunt, as detailed here:

[Name of accused] was apparently ‘witch hunted’ by a Facebook group calling itself the Social Sanction (SS) group, according to his father. His name, photos, personal address and numbers were posted online, and he was heavily criticised by members of the SS group. (…)

Sawitree Suksri, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, described the SS group’s method as “vicious” and “irrational” and a form of online violence that parallels the real-life violence in Thailand. She also noted in a signed article that the ongoing Social Sanction phenomenon appeared to have the support of the Thai authorities.

THAILAND: Student blogger charged with lèse majesté“, University World News, August 13, 2011

As charges for lèse majesté grow in numbers, so does the resistance against this law. We have previously reported about an open letter by a group of 100 young writers calling to amend this law and stop its excessive abuse. This group has now grown to 359 writers and they also have published a new open letter, key excerpt:

We hereby appeal to the Members of the Thai Parliament who are the representatives and law makers for the Thai people to take the lead in amending Article 112 of the Criminal Code. This is our call for courage to politicians, academicians, the media and intellectuals from all sectors of Thai society to awaken their conscience and to recognize that the suppression of freedom of speech and expression through the misuse of Article 112 by means of physical threats, pressing charges, lawsuits and intimidation by government officials in power or among members of the Thai public including the mass media, is a grave danger to the stability of our nation. This is of utmost national concern and in urgent need of reform.

A society will fail not as a result of diversity of opinions, nor lack of solidarity in political discourse, but a society will fail due to its inability to respect basic human rights, to allow opportunities for the public to voice their opinions, and to cherish and learn from the constructive exchange of different points of view. For our society to progress and prosper, it must develop a spirit of cooperation and cultivatean understanding of human rights, freedom and equality. The goal is for all Thais to live harmoniously under the constitutional monarchy rather than privilege those few who hold their view supreme, above and untouchable by common law and legal provisions or even the constitution which governs the nation.

359 Thai Writers Manifesto“, via Prachatai, July 25, 2011

The numerous cases show the problem about how this law is applied. In theory, anybody can file such a complaint to the police, who are obliged to investigate every one of them, no matter how nonsensical they are. They can forward them to the prosecution and subsequently to the court which then has to decide on the very ambiguously worded law as well. Throw in the also very vague 2007 Computer Crimes Act (which was at one time planned to be replaced by an even worse new draft), then you are in (perhaps deliberately) unchartered legal territory – as the trail against Prachatai webmaster Chrianuch Premchaiporn has shown.

Many have laid their expectations on the new government to change something about this. But hopes for a quick solution to the problem were quickly dashed when the new prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said that she has no intention to amend Article 112, but does not want to see this law misused. Any administration even thinking publicly about reforming or changing this problem will have to face attacks by royalists who will brand them anti-monarchist, a severe accusation which is a killer argument that prevents any rational discussion about possible political and societal reforms.

Even worse, the new Minister for Communication and Technology (MICT) Captain Anudith Nakornthap of the Pheu Thai Party has gone on record declaring this:

(…) นับจากนี้ไป จะมีการกำชับให้ข้าราชการ และเจ้าหน้าที่ของกระทรวง ในทุกระดับ มีการเข้มงวดมากยิ่งขึ้น ในการกำกับดูแลปราบปรามการกระทำผิด พ.ร.บ.เกี่ยวกับคอมพิวเตอร์ และการหมิ่นสถาบันผ่านเว็บไซต์ต่างๆ โดยจะดำเนินการบังคับใช้กฎหมายอย่างเด็ดขาด

(…) from now on, the ministry’s officials and staff members of every level have been urged to be more stringent in the pursuing of violations against the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté on websites, by enforcing the law to the fullest.

รมว.ไอซีทีประกาศปราบเว็บหมิ่น ก่อนประเด็นลามถึงในเฟซบุ๊ก เจ้าตัวย้ำจะบังคับใช้กม.อย่างเป็นธรรม“, Matichon, August 13, 2011

The new MICT minister made clear that nothing will change about the status quo, which means a continuation of the online witch-hunt, with support from a state-sponsored volunteer ‘cyber-scout’ network of denunciators and like-minded people who act on anticipatory obedience (see this link again for the aforementioned Social Sanction group and how students feel intimidated to speak their mind). All that in an atmosphere of when the army feels the urge to overemphasize their loyalty to the royal institution and openly threatens to crackdown on lèse majesté offenders. It sets a dangerous precedent of a black-and-white dichotomy against the Thai people, who think out of the norm.

It will be a long process until those who claim to protect the institution see that they are doing more harm than good in the long-run. One of the country’s most outspoken social activists, Sulak Sivaraksa, was recently quoted in a foreign newspaper interview that “loyalty demands dissent. Without dissent you cannot be a free man, you see.” Ironically, due to the same legal reasons as discussed here, I cannot provide a link to the source of that quote…!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.