Thai man could get 37 years in prison for insulting King's dog

Authorities arrested a Thai factory worker after he insulted the King's beloved dog Tongdaeng on social media. Have Thailand's controversial lèse-majesté laws gone too far?

Wason Wanichakorn/AP
In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, file photo, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, center, is surrounded by his family members, from left, Princess Somsavali, his daughter Princess Ubolratana, his daughter Princess Chulabhorn, Princess Siribhachudabhorn, Royal Consort Princess Srirasm, his grandson Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, his son Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his daughter Princess Sirindhorn after addressing the crowd from a balcony of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall on his 85th birthday in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thanakorn Siripaiboon was arrested at his home in Bangkok last week after authorities accused the factory worker of writing a “sarcastic” post on social media about Tongdaeng, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s beloved rescue dog.

The military refuses to publish the specifics of the post, but Mr. Thanakorn could face a total of 37 years in prison for his comments about Tongdaeng, whose name means "copper." Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, which protect the royal family from any insult or threat, have witnessed resurgence in recent years.

“I never imagined they would use the law for the royal dog,” Thanakorn’s lawyer Anon Numpa told The New York Times. “It’s nonsense.”

The absurdity of this case draws attention to Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, but this Southeast Asian monarchy is not the only country to boast similar protection laws for royal families. In Europe, for example, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain all have lèse-majesté laws. And while these countries do not use monarchy defamation laws as frequently as Thailand, they are still alive. 

In 2007, two Spanish cartoonists were found guilty of offending the royal family after Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia were portrayed in an “explicit sexual posture” on the cover of the satirical magazine El Jueves. The edition was pulled from newsstands across the county and both Guillermo Torres and Manel Fontdevila were fined € 2,000.

Dutch activist Abulkasim al-Jaberi was arrested and fined €500 in Nov. 2014 after he shouted profanities on live television aimed at King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and his wife, Queen Maxima. Al-Jaberi was part of a demonstration in Amsterdam protesting the Dutch “Black Pete” children’s figure, claiming it has racist connotations. 

And similar anti-defamation laws exist outside of monarchies. A Turkish doctor faced two years in jail after comparing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Lord of the Ring’s character Gollum earlier this month, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The charge was later dropped because the judge had not seen the film. 

Other monarchies, such as Britain, have lèse-majesté laws in place but have not applied them for more then a century. And some Thai activists say their monarchy needs to show similar restraint. 

“If we’re going to have political reform, then we have to abolish the lèse-majesté laws,” Giles Ungpakorn, a professor of politics at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University told The Christian Science Monitor. “We have to be able to talk about the important issues in Thai society and the role of the monarchy.” 

King Bhumibol, 88, wrote a best-selling book about Tongdaeng in 2002. An animated film based on the dog’s life, titled “Khun Tongdaeng: The Inspiration,” was released in theaters last week and it is already a box office success.  

Some Thai are unsurprised about the extension of royal protection laws to Tongdaeng because the dog “has been widely recognized and renowned for her incredible loyalty, gratefulness, and bravery,” said Vinij Lertratanachi, the producer of the recent animated film. Praised for her obedience, Tongdaeng has been revered as a model of how Thais should behave towards Bhumibol, the longest serving King in Thailand’s history.

Tongdaeng “is humble and knows protocol,” and she would “always sit lower than the king,” Bhumibol writes in his book. 

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