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(Sep 10, 2009) On August 28, 2009, Thai political activist Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul was sentenced by a criminal court to 18 years of imprisonment on charges of insulting the royal family, in violation of Thailand's law on lese majeste, during a July 2008 speech he made at a political rally for ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Darunee's lawyer says he intends to appeal the verdict. (Jaclyn Belczyk, Thailand Court Sentences Political Activist to 18 Years for Royal Defamation, JURIST, Sept. 2, 2009, available at http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2009/09/thailand-court-sentences-p
olitical.php
.) King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne for more than 60 years, is Thailand's longest reigning sovereign. (Marwaan Macan-Markar, THAILAND: Lese Majeste Law Tests Mettle of Human Rights Groups, Aug. 31, 2009, available at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48272; Michael Aquino, Thailand's Strict "Lese Majeste" Laws - The Thai Reverence for the King, ABOUT.com, http://goseasia.about.com/od/thaipeopleculture/a/lesemajeste.htm (last visited Sept. 8, 2009).)

Darunee has been in custody since July 2008. On June 23, 2009, a judge had ordered a closed trial for her case, on grounds of national security. (Darren Schuettler, Thai Lese-Majeste Trial Shut "for National Security," REUTERS, June 23, 2009, available at http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-40536920090623?pageNum
ber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0
.) Known as "Da Torpedo" because of her fiery rhetoric, Darunee was convicted of three violations of the Criminal Code provision on lese majeste; a single breach can incur the maximum 15-year sentence. In its verdict, the three-judge panel found that "she intended to insult and make threats to the king and the queen" (Macan-Markar, supra) and sentenced her to six years on each count, consisting of "three different remarks deemed insulting to the monarchy during public political rallies …," according to the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD. (Darunee Sentenced to 18 Years, Political Prisoners in Thailand website, Aug. 29, 2009, available at http
://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/2009/08/29/new-darunee-sente
nced-to-18-years/
; the article also has a hyperlink to a report in Thai on the verdict.)

Darunee's decision not to plead guilty was unusual; most defendants "choose to plead guilty and beg the king for mercy on conviction," because "the ill-defined laws are almost impossible to beat even in a case that is open to public scrutiny," and Thai law allows more lenient sentencing for defendants who admit the charges against them. (Id., citing to THE FINANCIAL TIMES, Aug. 28, 2009.) Article 112 of Chapter 1, "Offenses Against the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent, and the Regent," of Title I, "Offenses Relating to the Security of the Kingdom," of Book II, "Specific Offenses" of the Criminal Code of Thailand stipulates: "[w]hoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." (THE CRIMINAL CODE 76 (Bangkok, Sãtphais~n, 2007).) The Constitution states, moreover: "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action" (sect. 8). (Thailand Constitution 2007, ASIANLII, http://www.asianlii.org/th/legis/const/2007/1.html#C02 (last visited Sept. 8, 2009).)

The sentence, described as "the harshest delivered by the courts in recent times," comes in the wake of a ten-year term of imprisonment handed down in April to another Thai national for violation of the lese majeste law through posting of an image on the Internet. (Macan-Markar, supra.) Moreover, the trial is reportedly "the latest in a slew of lese-majeste cases critics say are stifling dissent and freedom of speech." (Schuettler, supra.)

Concern has grown over the enforcement of the lese majeste laws in Thailand, where more than 30 cases are pending, including police investigations of a former government spokesman and Thaksin ally, a respected Buddhist philosopher, a leftist Thai academic who has fled abroad, and a political activist who refused to rise for the playing of the royal anthem before a movie screening at a cinema. (Macan-Markar, supra.) In addition, the Thai Ministry of Information and Communication Technology was reported to have requested that the police investigate some 5,000 websites for possible lese majeste violations; previously, the authorities indicated that "over 10,000 websites were being monitored for comments that allegedly defamed the monarchy." It has been reported that the government has spent 42.2 million baht (about US$1.28 million) on an Internet firewall to block websites carrying anti-monarchy remarks. (Id.)

On the other hand, in an opinion piece published in the BANGKOK POST under the heading "Legal Viewpoint," Dr. Borwornsak Uwann, a Fellow of the Royal Institute and Secretary-General of the King Prajadhipok Institute, presented his view of lese majeste in Thailand, which included the following explanatory remarks on the broader context of the law:

The lese majeste offence means not just harm to the monarch but also to the "father" of most Thais - a serious social offence comparable to ingratitude towards one's own father. It is therefore not surprising that the "father" himself does not want to take offence (as apparent in His Majesty's remarks on December 4, 2005) and feels that criticism of him can be done. Most Thais, however, still wish to maintain the law in order to protect the institution they revere from harm.

In other words, lese majeste is regarded as not just harmful to the person insulted but to Thai society, ethics and culture. This is in line with the criminological principle that certain acts may be criminalised if there is a societal consensus that they are harmful to society and constitute a limitation on freedom of expression. It is not dissimilar to the limitation on freedom of expression as regards criticism of God and the Prophet in Muslim countries, which is not understood by some Westerners … .

(Dr. Borwornsak Uwanno, Thai Culture and the Law on Lese Majeste, BANGKOK POST, Apr. 8, 2009 [Part Two of Thai Laws Reflecting Thai Culture and Ethics], available at http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/14702/thai-culture-and-the-la
w-on-lese-majeste>.)

In March 2009, the government was considering amending some aspects of the lese majeste laws, in particular the means of enforcement, with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledging that they have been abused in the past and that "a group of 50 academics and others from around the world" were urging reform. (Karen Percy, Thailand Mulls Reforming Lese-Majeste Laws, ABC NEWS (Australia), Mar. 6, 2009, available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/03/06/2509931.htm.) Thus far, however, it appears that no action has been taken.

Author: Wendy Zeldin More by this author
Topic: Freedom of speech More on this topic
Jurisdiction: Thailand More about this jurisdiction

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Last updated: 09/10/2009