International Organisations fail on Lèse-Majesté

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Despite the fact that Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has stated that “the threat of the use of the lèse majesté laws adds to the chilling effects on freedom of expression observed in Thailand after the coup”, the track record of international organisations and Western governments in supporting Thai political prisoners jailed under this draconian law is exceedingly poor.

For years Amnesty International failed to campaign on the issue, claiming that it preferred to carry out “quiet lobbying” of the Thai government. Locally based AI officials even supported the use of the law. Eventually AI took up the case of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. But the AI campaign has been weak and half-hearted.

Western governments have shown a token interest over the oppressive effects of lèse majesté. The U.S. government sent an embassy official as an observer to some seminars on the subject which I helped to organise before I was forced to leave Thailand because of this law. But the U.S. government has done nothing of any significance since. The Canadian ambassador to Thailand informed me that his government was “concerned” about lèse majesté and was involved in “quiet lobbying”. But nothing positive has resulted.

Western governments, including E.U. governments, could make public statements opposing lèse majesté and they could ask to send embassy observers to lèse majesté trials. That kind of pressure helped to release student political prisoners after the 6th October 1976 blood bath in Bangkok.

I do not have utopian illusions in the commitment of Western governments to freedom and democracy, but citizens of those governments could put pressure on politicians to raise the issue.

Some academics who are involved in Thai Studies have published good public statements against lèse majesté, but things need to be taken further. Lèse majesté is also an infringement of academic freedom and Thai academics and students have fallen foul of the law. It is time for a boycott of official Thai academic institutions and conferences which are linked to the Thai government. So far nothing has happened.

Lèse majesté is not just about censorship, violence and intimidation by the state. The widespread use of the law and the manic promotion of the monarchy by the military and others is a green light for royalist thugs and other non-state actors to commit violence or make threats against citizens. It applies to all those who are merely accused of lèse majesté by anyone, whether or not they are actually charged or found guilty. This is clear in the cases of academics Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Worajet Pakeerat.

Given that the military junta is increasing its use of lèse majesté, with those facing trials automatically being refused bail, and given that people like Somyot and Da Torpedo have been locked away under appallingly stiff sentences, it is a matter of urgency that there are more campaigns for the abolition of lèse majesté.

In Thailand, while state officials who shoot down unarmed demonstrators and destroy democracy go free, people who merely express opposition to the status quo, in a totally non-violent manner, are deemed to be “serious criminals”.

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