Thai authorities are expanding the use of strict laws against insulting the monarchy, with recent prosecutions that critics say are eroding freedom of expression in the country. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Bangkok on the debate over the lese majeste laws that supporters says are needed to protect the country’s revered monarchy.
Thai royalists protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok this month, denouncing criticism of the law called article 112 that carries stiff penalties for insulting the Thai King, Queen, or Crown Prince.
“The U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, criticized article 112. We consider this interference with Thai sovereignty and judicial process,” said protest organizer Baworn.
Offenders face up to 15 years in jail, but the law is vague on what is considered an insult. Anyone can raise accusations and the police are obliged to investigate.
In December a Thai court sentenced American Joe Gordon to two and a half years in jail for posting links on his blog to a banned book about the Thai King. It was the first such conviction of an American and drew extra scrutiny because the offenses were committed while Gordon was living in the United States.
"We consider this sentence severe because he was sentenced for his right to freedom of expression, which is, as we said, is the international norm of human rights,” said U.S. Concul General Elizabeth Pratt.
Opponents of the law protested in November after a 62-year-old Thai man was given 20 years in jail for sending text messages deemed offensive to the Thai Queen. The man, Amphon Tangnoppaku, denied the charge.
"Next time, it can be me, it can be my friends, my child or someone I know…Nobody should be jailed for almost 20 years for expressing an opinion which practically caused no trouble to anyone," said protester Suwat Komonsithikul.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose supporters have been targeted under the law, has surprised observers by aggressively pursuing alleged cases of lese majeste.
A new “war room” of 50 investigators scours the Internet for crimes including harassment and pornography. But on this first tour given to foreign television, investigators emphasized their main focus.
“So, the first priority is the monarchy. And, the other contents are important too, but the priority is later,” said computer technical officer Narongdej Watcharapasorn.
The evidence of alleged offenses is so sensitive it is kept in a sealed room.
They have so far blocked 60,000 web pages. His team now asks providers like Facebook and Google to help by removing offensive web pages at the source.
“If Facebook has 1,000 pictures, it may have 1,000 URLs and we have to suppress 1,000 URLs. But, if we ask Facebook to remove the content for us all 1,000 URLs will disappear without using the court order and will disappear forever,” Narongdej said.
Facebook tells VOA they restrict content in countries where it is considered illegal, but did not specify what content, if any, they are blocking in Thailand.