Thailand’s human rights situation has set alarm bells ringing, as the space for freedom of expression becomes frighteningly constrained. Indeed, open discussion of the much revered monarchy risks becoming a taboo in the country as groups aligned with the royalists continue to exploit lèse-majesté laws to silence political dissent.
Since the military coup in 2006, cases of lèse-majesté have multiplied. In 2005, 33 charges came before the Court of First Instance, which later handed down 18 decisions in these cases. By 2007, the number of charges increased almost fourfold, to 126. This number jumped to 164 in 2009, and then tripled to 478 cases in 2010. The most dramatic increases occurred under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which adopted a royalist line strongly backed by the military.
But it has been a number of recent high-profile cases that have really underscored the misuse of lèse-majesté law and the gross violations of human rights taking place in Thailand today. The arrest of a 62-year-old Thai-Chinese man, Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, shocked many Thais. He allegedly sent four text messages insulting the Queen and the Crown Prince. Amphon has always maintained his innocence.
Joe Gordon, or Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a Thai-born American, was jailed for two and a half years in Thailand after posting online excerpts from banned book, The King Never Smiles, while living in the United States. The U.S. government criticized the lèse-majesté law, but was taken aback by the response of Thai hyper-royalists, who called for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador to Bangkok.
More staggeringly, Abhinya Sawatvarakorn, nicknamed Kantoop, or “Joss Stick”, a 19-year-old student at Thammasat University, will be charged with lèse-majesté over comments she made on Facebook two years ago. Kantoop was accused of committing lèse-majesté in April 2009 while she was still in high school.
She will be one of the youngest ever to be charged under the law, and has already been through a catalogue of “social punishments.” For example, she was reportedly refused admission into Silpakorn University, where some professors painted her as an anti-monarchy figure. She also had a shoe thrown at her by a student at the esteemed Thammasat University, where she currently studies, and has been forced to change her name to avoid being recognized – and possibly attacked.
Recognizing the unprecedented surge of charges under the lèse-majesté law, young law professors from Thammasat University, who formed the group called Nitirat, or “law for the people,” have been campaigning for amendments to the law. But an even more important objective for them has been to create a more equal society, in which people are not forced to live in fear simply because they disagree with the role of the monarchy in politics.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is calling for court observers at the resumption of the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the Prachai website, who is being prosecuted under the Computer Crime Act after her arrest in March 2009. The trial of her case, after it was delayed for a variety of reasons, will again resume on February 14 to 16, 2012 at the Criminal Court in Bangkok.
In her appeal calling for court observers, Chiranuch wrote:
“Three years, are the time I have to live my life being accused of committing a crime under Section 14 and 15 of the Computer Crime Act. Still, I have to continue a life like this without knowing an end. For all these time, I would like to thank you for your assistance, support and keen interest on the trial observation always.
The police arrested me at Prachatai Office on 6 March 2009 while the prosecutor filed the case to the Criminal Court on 31 March 2010. On the latter date, I was detained in the court basement for four hours before THB 300,000 bail was guaranteed by my sister’s career (she is a nurse in the government hospital) as an exchange for my contemporary release. The court then arranged a meeting on 31 May 2010 to investigate the witnesses, collect the evidence as well as decide on the hearing dates.
At first, the hearings were scheduled for eight consecutive days in February 2011 but could only continue for four days with five prosecutor witnesses’ presence. The rest of the witnesses said they were not available on the mentioned dates required the judges, prosecutors, and the lawyers’ team to set up a new hearing schedule from September to October 2011. Due to a large time gap; the composition of the judges in the second period were changed with regards to the annual shift occurred in the bureaucratic system.
In September, the hearings of the prosecutors’ witnesses were completed and the hearings of the Defense witnesses had started including that of myself. In October, massive flooding in Bangkok prevented the continual court trial, Mr. Danny O’Brien from Committee to Protect Journalists who was traveling all the way from San Francisco being the only witness allowed.
At the hearing, an interpreter provided by the court was unable to give an accurate interpretation. The lawyers’ team; as a result, was decided to submit the testimony written by Mr. O’Brien beforehand and would like to postponed the rest of the hearings to 14-16 February, 2012.“