Thailand's Lèse-majesté crackdown: Deepening chill on dissent?

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws are already strict, but the case against an online forum moderator who didn't delete royal insults quick enough may indicate further crackdowns to come.

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    Prachatai's web manager, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, at her office in Bangkok. She is accused of failing to delete posts made by others on the Prachatai online forum quickly enough.
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Billboard-size images of Thailand's royal family are draped over court buildings in Bangkok's Ladphrao area, where on Wednesday morning the webmaster of a current affairs website testified on charges of insulting the country's monarch.

The thing is: Chiranuch Premchaiporn did not say or write anything offensive herself. She is accused of failing to delete posts made by others on the Prachatai online forum quickly enough.

Thailand's lèse-majesté laws, which include prohibitions against posting anti-monarchy slurs on the web, are among the world's strictest, meriting jail terms of 3 to 15 years. And Ms. Chiranuch's situation is but one in a spike in these lèse-majesté and related cases in recent years. Although official figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that caseload runs well into the hundreds.

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Despite King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, having limited powers in Thailand's parliamentary system of government, lèse-majesté laws have long drawn a veil over criticism of him and his family. The increased number of lèse-majesté accusations comes amid concern that as the reign of the 84-year-old king ends, the country will see an even more severe crackdown, amid ongoing, sometimes deadly, political rivalries.

“Now that we are now in the final phase of the current reign, the law will be used more and more,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic based in Singapore.

Though it’s rare for foreigners to be prosecuted, two Thai-born US citizens have been caught in the dragnet. Joe Gordon was charged with lèse-majesté on Aug. 18, while Anthony Chai is suing the US and Canadian based company Netfirms, alleging it handed information to Thai investigators without his consent, resulting in a lèse-majesté case against him.

“We urge the Thai authorities to ensure freedom of expression is respected and that Mr. Gordon, a US citizen, receives fair treatment,” says a representative from the US Embassy in Bangkok. The Embassy official refrained though, from commenting on Mr. Chai's case or from discussing freedom of expression in Thailand.

In Thailand, crown and national security are often mentioned in the same breath, and the 2006 coup forestalled an imminent violent confrontation between enemies and loyalists of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to a former Thai prime minister quoted in a US Embassy cable two days after the putsch.

In court today, Chiranuch said that the coup changed the debate on the online forum she moderates, “people became more aggressive and anti-military, while before they were more against Thaksin.”

Fugitive businessman and former Prime Minister Thaksin’s past electoral successes were sullied by human rights abuses and corruption, prompting royalists to take to the street in the major protests of 2006.

Those demonstrations sparked a coup, the five-year anniversary of which was lamented by Thaksin supporters in Bangkok Sunday.

Elections for prime minister this summer resulted in a win for the Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party, the latest incarnation of parties backed by Thaksin.

His sister Yingluck is now prime minister, and she says her administration “agrees to review all criminal charges and lèse-majesté cases to ensure fair investigations,” after reading a report from a commission set up after 2010 protests by Thaksin supporters resulted in 91 deaths in the heart of Bangkok.

She seems to be good cop to Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung's bad cop, after he growled that websites containing slurs against the monarchy “will not be tolerated by this government,” perhaps trying to forestall a revival of royalist rumors.

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