Lèse-majesté today

Longtime New Mandala readers know that we have, over this past decade, paid a great deal of attention to lèse-majesté prosecutions in Thailand.

Flicking through our hundreds of old posts on the topic I am reminded of the big collective effort to put public criticsm of lèse-majesté on the agenda: remember “Arkong“, Suwicha Thakor and Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, and Chotisak Oonsong and Chiranuch Premchaiporn, and all the rest.

Even those five names remind us that there have been many difficult cases over the years, where the heavy boots of Thailand’s royalist, militarist and even democratic forces have come down hard on individuals judged to have stepped out-of-line. There isn’t a Thai government I can name that hasn’t played the political game when it comes to lèse-majesté.

Some of our detractors like to claim that New Mandala‘s occasional emphasis on this topic distorts our analysis of the overall picture of Thai society and politics. Of course there is much more to the country’s current problems than the restrictions on free expression reinforced by Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Yet since it seized power in the May 2014 coup, the military regime has insisted on some of the lengthiest lèse-majesté sentences in Thai history. The 30-year sentence recently imposed on Pongsak Sriboonpeng is a case in point. And sadly he’s not alone. The list of Thailand’s political prisoners grows by the month.

Robust international condemnation has followed these soul-destroying sentences, including hard-hitting statements from the United Nations. And yet there is no indication that Thailand’s power brokers are prepared to temper their aggressive prosecutions.

From their perspective the security, indeed the very existence, of the kingdom relies on such harsh punishments, and they make no apologies for stomping out dissent. It’s classic authoritarian posturing. It also works under conditions where many Thais have been led to believe that perceived opponents of the Thai monarchy are the lowest-of-the-low.

Under the current military regime it looks like there is almost no chance of reform to the law. It is just far too useful given the  politics of succession that are swirling around.

What does this mean for the country? Can anything be done about the chilling effect of lèse-majesté?

Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala, a Fellow in the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU, and a strong advocate for the study of Thai society.