Tensions rise as Thai curbs on royal slurs tighten

Tensions rise as Thai curbs on royal slurs tighten
Thailand Prime Minister and junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha.

These are tense times for anyone vaguely seen to be questioning the Thai monarchy. After a spate of arrests and indictments for violation of the kingdom's lese majeste law, the post-coup government has declared defending the monarchy as its top priority.

Insulting the royal family is already a crime that carries a maximum 15-year jail sentence in Thailand, where 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is treated as a demigod.

Prime Minister and junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed to tighten the screws last Friday by using "legal measures, social-psychological measures and telecommunications and information technology" against individuals who try to undermine the institution.

He did not elaborate further. Still, his remarks have thickened the atmosphere of fear, given that the Thai media has already been speculating on the extra surveillance that the newly appointed government will use to suppress opposition and weed out anti-monarchical elements.

Local news website Prachatai ran an unconfirmed report last week that the authorities were planning to use a powerful device to identify Internet users producing and reading lese majeste content. It said this tool will be sophisticated enough to monitor content shared using secured channels.

Junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree denied this. What the authorities have, he told The Straits Times, is a team that monitors the Internet for not just insults to the monarchy, but also defamation. "Social media is an easy way to spread information, but if people don't screen the messages, they create confusion," he said.

He conceded that anti-monarchy websites hosted overseas were hard to control but said the authorities were trying to rein them in anyway.

Analysts expect lese majeste indictments to be fast-tracked in the months to come. On its own, the law has been criticised for being too broad and prone to abuse. Just last year, the criminal court dealt with a lese majeste complaint filed by one brother against another.

Other factors give it a draconian layer. Defendants are usually denied bail. Since May, when the military seized power, such cases have been heard in a military court. This means that those convicted have no right of appeal.

Human rights group Amnesty International has flagged the "unprecedented" number of people charged under the law: four persons prosecuted and sentenced, and another 10 charged since the coup.

Ms Yaowalak Anuphan, who heads the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, observed that the junta had re-opened old cases filed before the coup took place and processed them. Throwaway comments made before the military takeover are now fair game for monarchists trying to weed out all forms of irreverence towards the institution.

"Anything that I posted online before the May 22 coup, if it is considered lese majeste, can get me arrested now and put me before a military court," said Ms Anuphan.

The military-dominated interim government has tried to create a semblance of normality while trying to right an economy battered by political unrest. But several junta members are concurrently members of the newly appointed Cabinet, while martial law looks set to stay.

Critics fear that this government, having cast itself as a defender of the monarchy, will wield the lese majeste law against those questioning its legitimacy. "The regime will interpret… opposition as anti-monarchical," said independent scholar David Streckfuss.

A Thai professor from a major Bangkok university, who asked not to be named, said most of his colleagues are keeping their heads low.

"You can be targeted by anyone now."

tanhy@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 19, 2014.
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