The number of prosecutions in Thailand for insulting the royal family has soared amid a widespread crackdown on Web sites infringing the country’s laws.
The new Thai government has vowed to take prompt action against any sites that overstep the line. Convictions carry a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.
Thailand had already blocked or suspended almost 75,000 sites between 2007 and last year, mostly under computer crimes legislation in relation to lese-majeste. Campaigners hoped the new government would ease restrictions, particularly given the complaints filed against several leaders of the “Red Shirt” movement whose support brought the Puea Thai party to power.
However, following pressure from the ousted Democrats, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung pledged to set up a “war room” to deal with the issue online, the Bangkok Post reported.
“Web sites [guilty of lese-majeste] will not be tolerated by this government. I will take action as quickly as possible,” he said.
The issue’s increasing sensitivity comes amid the ill health of the 83-year-old king and the political conflict between elites, such as the powerful military and supporters of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup.
His sister, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, now leads the country and Puea Thai is seen as his party.
David Streckfuss, the leading expert on the issue and author of Truth on Trial in Thailand, said 30 lese-majeste charges were sent to the lower courts in 2006, 164 in 2009 and 478 last year. Multiple charges are often heard in single cases.
The lese-majeste law says anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir apparent or regent should be punished with three to 15 years in prison, but does not define what constitutes such behavior.
“It has become conflated with any criticism of the institution,” said Streckfuss, who drew a parallel with McCarthyism. “It’s the easiest, most vague and ambiguous shot at people.”
Earlier this month, 22-year-old student blogger Norawase Yospiyasathien was charged. Other cases causing particular alarm include those of Somsak Jiamteerasakul, a historian who proposed reforms to the monarchy; Thai-born US citizen Joe Gordon, whose blog linked to a banned book on the king; and Web master Chiranuch Premchaiporn, accused of not deleting user comments deemed to insult the king quickly enough.
Chiranuch’s trial under the computer crimes act resumes next month, and police could yet act on a separate complaint under the lese-majeste law. She faces up to 50 years in jail, though sentences are often reduced after conviction.
“We can’t deny any more that there is a problem,” said Chiranuch, who runs the independent Prachathai news site. “There’s strong evidence that, with the political conflict, this law has been abused.”
Hundreds of academics, lawyers, writers and activists have joined calls for reform of the law. They stress they are not questioning the monarchy, but the way the lese-majeste rule has been used.
“[People] are using it as a political tool to destroy their enemies,” Worachet Pakeerut, a law professor at Thammasat University, said last month.
Proposals include reducing the maximum sentence and allowing only an official royal body to register complaints. At present, anyone can; the royal family itself has never done so. Some reform advocates note the king said in 2005 that it would be “problematic” if people were unable to criticize him.