Thailand Still Struggling to Secure Freedom of Speech
On the night of Feb. 29, Professor Worachet Pakeerut was walking to his car outside the law faculty at one of Thailand’s most prestigious universities where he lectures when two men came up to him and repeatedly punched him in the face before fleeing on a motorbike, leaving the professor bloodied on the floor and fumbling for his broken glasses.
The attack wasn’t a mugging or some disgruntled students seeking retribution. It was a clear signal to Worachet, one of seven law professors who have been campaigning to have the country’s controversial lese majeste laws amended, to cease.
Earlier protests against the campaign included the burning of an effigy of the professor outside of Thammasat University, where he teaches.
International rights groups have warned that a climate of repression and fear built around lese majeste is increasingly smothering Thailand as the noose around free speech and basic freedoms becomes ever tighter and the kingdom’s political heavyweights engage in a vicious struggle to forge a deal to end the protracted conflict.
People are afraid to speak their minds. A sense of angst and confusion — and increasing anger — permeates the air, from university lecture theaters in the capital to dusty whiskey stands in the arid northeast.
While seen by outsiders as a clear case of infringement on human rights, the issue in a country where many view King Bhumibol Adulyadej as a demi-god and affectionately refer to him as “father,” takes on highly emotive connotations which have been dangerously manipulated to silence debate and dissent and helped fuel a highly charged and volatile atmosphere.
Today, the Bangkok Criminal Court is due to deliver its verdict on the case of executive director of Prachatai.com, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who is facing a criminal liability charge under Section 15 of Thailand’s Computer-related Crime Act for allowing 10 posts deemed as lese majeste to appear in Prachatai’s webboard in 2008. She faces up to 20 years in prison.
The verdict will have implications on Internet freedom and freedom of expression in the region and is being closely watched by rights groups both inside and outside of the country.
The Computer Crimes Act provides that any service provider “intentionally supporting or consenting” to posting unlawful content is subject to the same penalty imposed on the poster, which is a maximum imprisonment of five years. Holding Internet service providers liable is a particularly pernicious practice that makes third-parties responsible for the content of others, effectively turning them into the enforcers and censors for the government, Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement.
Of particular concern are the exceptionally harsh sentences being handed down as well as the trend for judges to deny bail to defendants being held on lese majeste charges. Some defendants have been held in jail for years on remand. For some, however, such as media firebrand and leader of the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy movement Sondhi Limthongkul, bail has been approved.
“Thailand’s lese majeste laws are being overused and abused,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s assault on Internet service providers sends a chilling message to Web masters and Internet companies that they either censor other people’s content or face severe penalties.”
Ultra-royalists and conservatives fear there is a concerted assault taking place on the monarchy. They see the lese majeste law as a pivotal tool to counteract those seeking to destabilize the nation and bring down the power of the royal institution, as well as a powerful and convenient method of not only directly silencing political critics, but also of fostering and entrenching a culture of self-censorship.
Many Thais who, due to decades of state- and self-imposed censorship of the media, have only ever heard positive news about the monarchy are fearful and feel an almost religious duty to defend their king against any alleged aggression or attacks. The emotional zeal of this devotion means the room for rational debate in some sections of Thai society is almost non-existent.
So sensitive is the climate that a recent Thai film rendition of the Shakespeare play Macbeth, which drew on recent political events in its interpretation, was banned by government censors for having “content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation.”
The protracted political conflict has unsettled the country so deeply that many fear the kingdom’s very identity and the concept of “Thainess” are under threat. This is causing great discomfort among conservatives and there has been a worrying prevalence toward the use of xenophobic and fascist rhetoric.
Conversely, others say the real issue is that the modern concept of Thainess is manufactured and coerced, and the political crisis is uncovering its many fallacies and that an entrenched elite is seeking to maintain its hegemonic grip on power, which has always been centered around the perceived infallibility of the palace.
However, the rapid rise in lese majeste cases has also precipitated a growing movement in opposition to the law. Several local Thai groups have emerged, including the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 that has been pushing for amendments to Article 112 of the Penal Code in line with proposals made by Khana Nitirat, the lawyers group of which the assaulted professor is a founding member.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, both Khana Nitirat and CCAA 112 have faced growing harassment and threats since January, and the physical assault on Worachet “represents an ominous escalation of the dangers faced by the Khana Nitirat and others promoting critical discussion about the appropriate role and form of Article 112 in present-day Thailand.”
Thailand has many questions and hurdles to overcome if it is to halt this decline. The rising use of lese majeste as a tool to stifle dissent offers a dark window into the current state of affairs in Thailand.
If the country is able to take on this issue and deal with it in a reasonable manner, this may offer a sign that a corner can be turned. For many, though, the future of this country appears fraught with further confrontations and strife and a slow descent into repression and fear.