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Thailand cites plots against king for clampdown on red-shirt dissent

Thailand’s government accuses the red-shirt opposition of trying to topple revered King Bhumibol. Critics argue it’s using the monarchy – and strict laws against defaming it – as an excuse to crack down.

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“They think they own the country. They think they own us,” says a businessman and red-shirt supporter.

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This backlash against royal tutelage is also a direct threat to the powerful Army, which styles itself as the defender of the palace. In 2006, it staged a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom it accused of disloyalty to the throne, a charge that he has denied. He now lives in exile and backs the red shirts.

Prime Minister Abhisit has backed the military’s campaign to root out republican plots and claimed that red-shirt protests had a “higher purpose” than forcing new elections. Asked for evidence of such plots, Abhisit cited antimonarchy writings by a minority of red shirts, in contrast to the majority who are “loyal subjects.”

“We have a number of cases where there is violations of law concerning the security of the monarchy, which is clearly there in print. People have openly said they have the aim to do just that. From there, we look at people who are involved in producing these kinds of materials,” he told a May 29 press conference with foreign media.

Clamping down

Since the coup, authorities have ramped up criminal prosecutions of anyone who defames the royal family using a century-old lese majeste law and a new cybercrime law. Last year, an engineer was sentenced to 10 years in jail for posting an antiroyal video on YouTube. Others have been investigated for comments posted online and for refusing to stand up for the royal anthem at a cinema.

Only a handful of these cases have received public attention. But judicial statistics collated by David Streckfuss, an American academic in Khon Kaen and an expert on lese majeste, show a wave of court judgments that have gone unnoticed, possibly because of social stigma. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of Thais prosecuted under the law rose from 33 a year to 164, according to his data. Those found guilty face a mandatory jail term of between three and 15 years.

Analysts say Abhisit is walking a difficult line between clamping down on antiroyal and other radical sentiments and gradually easing restrictions so as to promote social and political reconciliation, which he says should precede any elections. Some argue that the intimidation of opponents using draconian laws may become the norm as long as the military and the palace perceive an existential threat.

But Michael Montesano, an expert on Thai history at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says this threat may no longer be effective in justifying authoritarianism, unlike in the past. “While clearly designed as a strategy of demagoguery and polarization,” he says, “they have so far failed to generate as much hatred as would have been the case three or for decades ago.”

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