By Saksith Saiyasombut

The rising awareness of Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law is gaining scrutiny from the international community after several countries have questioned and criticized Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Every four years, all members of the United Nations are required to submit a report about its human rights situation, and be questioned on it by other states. If you have the time you can watch all (and I mean ALL) hearings towards Thailand’s report, go here.

Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote in The Nation:

Representatives from the United Kingdom, France and Slovenia shared the view that the lese majeste law affected freedom of expression and urged Thailand to consider this aspect of liberty. Hungary and Finland urged Thailand to invite the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression to visit Thailand.

The representative of Norway – also a kingdom – made the most concrete suggestion, pointing out that although Norway has a lese majeste law, a charge can only be brought with the personal approval of the king in order to “avoid abuses”.  (…)

Other states whose representatives urged Thailand to amend the law included Switzerland, Brazil, Spain, Sweden and New Zealand. Some of these, including the Canadian representative, also raised the issue of the Computer Crimes Act, which critics say is also being used by the Thai government to curb freedom of expression.

US mum on lese majeste law at UN rights hearing“, by Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, October 7, 2011

ARTICLE 19, a UK-based NGO advocating freedom of expression, were also present during the hearing and have caught this:

Recommendations to Thailand to repeal or review the lèse-majesté law (Article 112 of Thailand’s Penal Code) and the Computer Crime Act (2007) were made by fourteen member states, including Western European countries, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Indonesia.

Indonesia was the only member state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to highlight the issue of freedom of expression in Thailand, a fellow member. It urged Thailand to carry out a comprehensive review of its laws to ensure that they fulfil the right to freedom of expression in accordance to international standards.

Spotlight on Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté Law and Computer Crimes Act“, ARTICLE 19, October 6, 2011

However, not all countries have raised their concerns towards Thailand:

The United States joined China, Syria, Singapore and Burma in not expressing any concern about the lese majeste law, (…).

US mum on lese majeste law at UN rights hearing“, by Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, October 7, 2011

This is seemingly the first time vocal opposition against lèse majesté has been come in that quantity from the international community. British MPs lobbied for Prachatai webmaster Chinranuch Premchaiporn, whose trial continued in the past few weeks (see here), but due to the current flood situation, will continue in February 2012.

Another case mentioned during the questioning at the UPR was the trial against Joe Gordon, a Thai-born American arrested back in May for allegedly posting a link to a banned unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and also allegedly translating parts of this book and later posted it on his blog. This was done while he was still in the United States, but was then arrested when he came to Thailand for medical treatment. His case started earlier this week, where Gordon pleaded guilty, in hope for a shorter sentence and eventually a royal pardon, something that has become almost standard procedure in similar cases of recent years.

Even more international criticism comes from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, who also urged Thailand in a press release to amend its laws:

“The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” La Rue said. “This is exacerbated by the fact that the charges can be brought by private individuals and trials are often closed to the public.” (…)

However, to prevent any abuse of this exceptional rule for purposes beyond the intended aim, any law that limits the right to freedom of expression must be clear and unambiguous regarding the specific type of expression that is prohibited, and proven to be necessary and proportionate for the intended purposes.

“The Thai penal code and the Computer Crimes Act do not meet these criteria. The laws are vague and overly broad, and the harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate to protect the monarchy or national security,” the expert noted.

Thailand / Freedom of expression: UN expert recommends amendment of lèse majesté laws“, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Human Rights Council, October 10, 2011

The special rapporteur rightfully points out the weaknesses of the laws that leave too much room for interpretation and the accused are likely to become, especially in these political times, victims of arbitrary acts by the authorities. While the Thai representatives at the hearing argue that the Thai government is “keen to prevent the misuse of the law”, something that the Abhisit administration had promised but failed to deliver, and that “an ongoing debate on lese majeste law” is taking place, though failing to see how public and how thorough the debate still can not go.

Also, Thai Ambassador to the UN Sihasak Phuangketkeow says that Thai media can report and comment “freely”. Again, while Thailand is still a far way from becoming the new Burma, the extent to which one can fully comment and report on the political developments in Thailand is highly limited, considering that there are more powers at play than those we elect.

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.