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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.

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In 2005, US-born Bhumibol discussed the law in a speech and said he could accept some criticism. That didn't stop the flow of cases. Defenders of the law say that it's essential to shield the royal family against personal attacks, as it can't sue for defamation.

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"If you take a referendum now on this particular issue I'm sure a big majority will think that the law should be there," says Surakiart Satirathai, a former deputy prime minister and Harvard-educated lawyer.

Those on the receiving end, however, argue that the law is a political tool to silence debate. Royalist protesters who shut down Bangkok's airports in November, often invoked the law against opponents.

"The lèse-majesté law has been put there as a deterrent.... [I]t's about telling society there's a line you can't cross," says Jakrapob Penkair, a former cabinet minister who resigned in May after being accused of the crime. He denies any wrongdoing.

The political turmoil has shone a spotlight on the role of the monarchy, with conservatives alleging a plot by Mr. Thaksin and his allies to weaken it. Much of their anxiety centers on the royal succession, as Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the presumed heir, lacks the stature of his father. This explains the desire to keep a lid on public debate, says David Streckfuss, a US expert on lèse-majesté. "It's all within the context of the succession. With this lingering over Thai society, it adds intensity," he says.

Some Thais say privately that protesters who claimed to be fighting to save the crown may actually be undermining the palace's neutrality. The attendance of Queen Sirikit, wife of Bhumibol, at a televised funeral of a royalist protester who died in street violence in October sent a signal of support that inflamed opinions among Thaksin supporters.

In this charged atmosphere, some taboos on discussing royal politicking are falling away, even as law enforcement is hardening. Mr. Jakrapob, a former aide to Thaksin, says his accusers are pushing Thailand in a new direction: "The harder you apply such laws, the faster society will change."

Nicolaides's walk-on role in this drama is as obscure as his book. In 2005, he sent advance copies to the palace and two government ministries, seeking their approval. After receiving no reply, he began to sell the book in Thailand. It was later pulled from stores on the orders of the Ministry of Justice, he says.

Mark Dean, a lawyer in Australia for Nicolaides, says Thai authorities decided at the time not to press charges against the author. He says the case was revived last year in an attempt by the former pro-Thaksin government to show loyalty to the crown. He describes Nicolaides as a "political prisoner."

Denied bail, Nicolaides spends his nights in a holding pen with dozens of other inmates. By day, he writes letters to his family and supporters in Australia and receives visitors. Four months in jail have afforded him time to rue the ironies of his book's theme of truth-seeking in Thai society.

"We think we see the world in front of us, but in fact we see our own prejudices," he says, speaking through a barred window.