US linguist Noam Chomsky, Princeton University professor Cornell West and 221 other foreign academics have urged Thailand’s prime minister to revise laws that shield the country’s monarchy from criticism, lending their voice to a controversial campaign.
In a letter seen on Thursday and sent to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra a day earlier, the mostly US and European academics backed the campaign by seven Thai university lecturers to amend the world’s toughest lese-majeste laws, which they said had become “a powerful tool to silence political dissent.”
Lese-majeste, or insults to the monarchy, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Article 112 of the Thai constitution.
The number of cases and convictions has skyrocketed since a coup in 2006 toppled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s self-exiled brother — and sparked a polarizing political crisis that has shown no sign of resolution.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, is deeply revered by Thais and is seen as a father of the nation, but even the monarch himself said in a speech said he was not above criticism. However, Yingluck’s government has made it clear it has no intention of amending the law.
Recent lese-majeste cases include a Thai-American jailed for posting a Web link to extracts of a book on the king banned in Thailand and a cancer sufferer sentenced to 20 years for sending text messages to a secretary of the former prime minister that were deemed insulting to Queen Sirikit.
“The harsh and disproportionate lengths of prison sentences given out under Article 112 have devastated the individuals sentenced and their families,” the letter said. “But these sentences ... also work powerfully to create fear among Thai citizens.”
Campaigners pushing for reform of the law, known as the Khana Nitirat, have caused a stir in recent weeks by advocating softer punishments and amendments to allow only representatives of the crown, rather than ordinary citizens, to file complaints.
However, some royalist groups and media commentators accuse them of trying to topple the monarchy, which the group denies.
Effigies of Nitirat members have been burned during small protests, while scores of postings on some Internet Web boards have advocated vigilantism. Bangkok’s traditionally liberal Thammasat University on Monday took the unprecedented decision to ban Nitirat from campaigning on its premises.