I was interviewing a senior Thai government figure recently who said that freedom of speech is protected in the constitution. I’m really not sure how someone can say that with a straight face when people are serving long prison sentences for expressing their opinions.
I’m talking about the archaic lese majeste laws which can result in severe punishments for anyone found guilty of criticising the monarchy. I have no problem with someone being punished for publishing offensive or defamatory remarks about someone else, but 10 years in jail for publishing 2 articles in a magazine surely seems excessive to most moderate people?
Magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasumsek was given exactly that sentence, plus another year for a separate defamation case. He didn’t write the articles in his magazine, but he published them, and that was enough to have him thrown in jail for a decade with little hope of bail or winning an appeal.
Mind you, it seems like Somyot got off lightly compared with the case of a man who became known as Uncle SMS who died in jail last year while beginning a 20 year sentence for sending 4 text messages deemed offensive to the monarchy.
The tragic story of Ampon Tangnoppakul shone a light on the lese majeste laws and the harsh treatment of defendants who are usually denied bail while awaiting trial and in some cases are jailed for long periods without being charged.
But unfortunately, cases like his come and go and they fade from the headlines.
Ampon’s widow, Rosmalin, was in court to hear the verdict in Somyot’s case. The allegations surrounding Somyot were magnified because he was a key figure behind the campaign to amend the lese majeste laws, otherwise known as article 112, but the sight of small protests against the laws is becoming more common.
That doesn’t mean people are debating the monarchy itself, but they feel they can now debate the legislation and that has to be seen as a positive development.
But as long there are people being locked up for criticizing the royal family, there will be allegations that Thailand does not have freedom of speech or human rights.
The only way a change in article 112 will happen is for politicians to speak up, but there is a cycle in place where people in power fear that even mentioning article 112 in parliament or public will result in accusations they're being disloyal to the monarchy.
Despite that, it’s believed there are senior people within the government who would like to see the laws amended. It’s just that they can’t say it at the moment.
Policemen and judges also feel obliged to push cases through because they’re concerned that they will come under the royalist microscope if they don’t.
It’s a cycle and an atmosphere that will be very difficult to break. But here’s the thing.
The King himself said he should be subject to criticism so in fact aren’t the politicians who make and debate the laws of the Kingdom being disloyal by not listening to those words?