Analysis: Thailand’s lese majeste law erodes the judiciary
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Analysis: Thailand’s lese majeste law erodes the judiciary

Those ‘protecting’ the monarchy, are undermining the legal system, reports Asia Sentinel’s Kevin Hewison

Thailand’s repeated use of its draconian lese majeste and computer crimes laws to “protect” its monarchy is also causing serious damage to its judicial system.

Since late December, Thai courts have sentenced three more people to jail terms under Article 112 of the Criminal Code (the lese majeste law) and the closely related Computer Crimes Act. All were identified as opponents of the previous government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party. Seventeen others are known to have been sentenced under these laws since the 2006 military coup. This sentencing has been ferocious, with some receiving 15 and 20 years. Almost all of those convicted were identified as opponents of the coup and military-backed governments.

Before the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the lese majeste law was used relatively infrequently. Spikes in its use have coincided with the right-wing and military governments that litter Thailand’s political history.

(READ MORE: Debate rages over Thailand’s lèse majesté law)

The period of political conflict associated with the Abhisit government, from late 2008 to mid-2011, saw the lese majeste law used to gag a vociferous Red Shirt opposition media and political movement. The Abhisit government repeatedly proclaimed that its censorship and jailing of political opponents was to prevent republicans bringing down the monarchy. It produced little evidence but the jails were filled with political prisoners.

While the Yingluck Shinawatra government, elected in mid-2011, has reduced the use of this politicized law, cases continue to drag through the courts, with the government’s royalist opponents having declared lese majeste reform an attack on the monarchy itself.

Many royalists assert that Article 112 is the foundation of protection for the monarchy and, indeed, for the Thai state itself. This conviction blinds them to the fact that the use of this draconian law and the continuing trials are undermining another institution that is vital for the state: the judiciary.

Historically, while the judiciary has been politically supine, it has not been identified as a politically activist institution. However, that changed when the king intervened following an election shambles in April 2006 to urge the judiciary to sort out the political mess. That mess revolved around royalist agitation for Thaksin’s elected government to be thrown out. To be sure, the king had long taken an interest in the judiciary, yet this was a call for a judicial political intervention. Since the military coup, the king has repeatedly urged the judiciary to remain activist.

In the period following the coup, the judiciary was first used to target Thaksin, his family and his parties with myriad legal cases. But it is lese majeste that has become defining for the courts. In order to “protect” the monarchy, and the system of political and economic power associated with it, the judiciary has responded with considerable gusto. Increasingly, though, foreign observers and Thai academics and activists are expressing concern at the bizarre legal calisthenics demonstrated by the courts.

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