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Thais tighten ban on royal slurs

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws are already strict, but a new crackdown on insults has resulted in a spike in arrests, including that of an Australian novelist.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2009

Royal deference: In a December ceremony, newly appointed prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva prostrated himself before a portrait of Thailand’s king.

Apichart Weerawong/Pool

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Bangkok, Thailand

Three years ago, Harry Nicolaides wrote a novel that he hoped would strip away "the veneer of truth" from Thailand, where he was teaching at the time. Initially, "Verismiltitude" fell well short of its author's ambitions: Only 50 copies were self-published and few were sold. He drifted back to Australia, before returning to Thailand to write and teach.

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Today, Mr. Nicolaides sits in a Bangkok jail on charges of lèse-majesté, the offense of insulting Thailand's royal family, in a brief passage in his novel about the private life of an unnamed crown prince. He intends to confess, repent, and seek a royal pardon.

"I've been demonized. I've got to play my role, to plead guilty and accept my sentence," he says.

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws are among the world's strictest, meriting jail terms of three to 15 years. Fear of the laws – as well as genuine veneration – has long drawn a veil over criticism of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, and his family. But a bitter struggle for power that is being waged, in part, in the name of the crown is testing these taboos.

In response, Thai lawmakers and security forces have sought to tighten controls by blocking thousands of websites, arresting activists, and drafting even tougher laws. A lawmaker in the ruling Democrat Party recently proposed raising the maximum jail time for lese-majeste to 25 years. The new government is also creating a 24-hour "war room" to scour the Internet for antiroyal comment.

Police say they are investigating a total of 32 cases of lèse-majesté, the highest number in decades. This includes BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, who was accused last year because of his reporting on Thai politics.

A female Thai activist was recently sentenced to six years in jail over a speech made to supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Another activist is in jail awaiting trial after drawing parallels in a fiery speech between the fate of the Thai monarchy and that of deposed dynasties in Russia, Nepal, and France.

Although it's rare for foreigners to be prosecuted, they aren't exempt. A Swiss man who defaced portraits of the king and queen was sentenced in 2006 to 10 years in jail, then swiftly pardoned and deported. Nicolaides is hoping for the same fast-track release.

Amnesty International is concerned over the rise in lèse-majesté cases here, says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for the organization. It considers people jailed for peacefully expressing their views as prisoners of conscience and has campaigned for the release of Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who has twice been prosecuted for the crime and now faces a new allegation.

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