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.

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

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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