Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is a Thai activist and magazine editor who in 2013 was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment for lèse majesté. He was arrested on 30th April 2011 and has been in jail ever since.
Somyot is a remarkable socialist activist. He has repeatedly refused to admit “guilt” and ask the king for a reduction in his sentence. In prison he has managed to work in the library where he gives encouragement to fellow prisoners to educate themselves. He also advises other lèse majesté prisoners on how to cope with the situation in which they find themselves.
Before editing a Red Shirt newspaper Somyot was a labour activist. Rungsit trade unionists would explain that Somyot had been a very clever and skilful trade union organiser and that he had led the unionisation struggles in many textile factories in Rungsit, north of Bangkok. When I finally got to meet Somyot at the offices of his labour NGO, we had differences of opinion about politics and the labour movement, but he always showed me sincere friendship. He made a point of inviting me to speak about socialism and trade union issues in the workers’ study groups which he organised in Bangkok and Ayuttaya.
Because he wants his imprisonment to be a condemnation of the lèse majesté law, it is only right that we discuss this terrible law again.
The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on democracy carried out by the military, the Palace and the elites.
Lèse majesté prisoners are tried in secret courts. The royalist judges claim that the offense is “too serious a threat to national security” to allow an open trial. This excuse is also routinely used to deny bail to those who are charged under this law.
Thai dictatorships have used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators in 1976 and 2010. The same excuse is almost always used by the military when it stages coups.
Jail terms for lèse majesté are draconian. Sentences for murder or man slaughter in Thailand are often shorter than those for people accused of insulting the monarchy and those who commit state crimes enjoy immunity.
When considering the issue of “insulting the monarchy”, it is worth bearing in mind that merely discussing the truth about the terrible behaviour of the royals is enough to land you in jail. Pleading that you were speaking the truth is not a permissible defence. So it is prohibited to talk about how the king allowed 3 innocent men to be executed for his brother’s death when he knew that they were innocent. It is prohibited to talk about how the king has given legitimacy to numerous military dictatorships and how he supported the 1976 blood bath at Thammasart University. It is prohibited to talk about the reactionary and neo-liberal ideology behind the king’s “Sufficiency Economy”. It is prohibited to talk about the extremist views of the queen concerning Patani and how she has openly supported those who wanted to destroy democracy. It is also prohibited to talk about the thuggish and sexist behaviour of the crown prince. None of this would be an “insult” to the royal family because it is all true.
A second point to consider when discussing the issue of accusing people of “insulting the monarchy” is that lèse majesté and the institution of the monarchy are actually there to protect and serve the interests of the military. The king has long been a creature of the military to be used to justify their actions. Those accused of “insulting the monarchy”, like myself, have actually been criticising Thai military coups and military dictatorships.
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 obscene law should be abolished. It cannot be amended.