Thailand's controversial laws that impose harsh penalties for defaming the country's royal family are under increased scrutiny this week, as are their critics. Rights groups are again calling for the country to reform the Lese Majeste laws, and the U.S. ambassador to Bangkok is under investigation for recent comments criticizing the lengthy jail terms handed down under the law.
A published statement by the international rights group Amnesty International says Thailand should stop applying the royal defamation law to criminalize freedom of expression, with the law leaving dozens of individuals in jail or facing military trials without access to appeal.
Amnesty says the law raises concerns over “absurd extremes of Thailand’s restrictions on freedom of expression.”
The Lese Majeste has been rigorously enforced in recent years under democratically elected governments but applied more intensively since the military took power in May last year.
Under Thailand’s penal code, the law covers those who “defame, insult or threaten” the King or Queen or their immediate family with jail terms of up to 15 years or more, in extreme cases.
Amnesty’s comments come as Thai police began an investigation of a speech in late November by the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies, in which he criticized what he saw as Thailand’s increasingly restrictive politics and military rule.
Davies also raised concerns over what he called the “unprecedented prison sentences” handed down by Thai military courts against civilians for violating the Lese Majeste.
But Kiat Sittheeamorn, a senior member of Thailand's Democrat Party who met with the U.S. ambassador, said the West needed to show greater sensitivity over the law’s application in Thailand.
“A law to protect the head of state is normal practice. It’s internationally recognized, even in the U.S. they have that kind of law (to protect the U.S. president). So the understanding of how the law is used [is] one aspect which I believe there is a lot of misunderstandings,” Sittheeamorn said.
Britain’s ambassador to Thailand, Mark Kent, had also entered the debate after the military government, which in general has banned political demonstrations in the country, allowed pro-Royalists to protest outside the U.S. Embassy following Davies’ remarks.
'Impending royal succession'
This week a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said Thailand's military government is failing to ease continuing political and social polarization against the backdrop of the “impending royal succession.”
But the assessment added that after a decade of political turmoil most Thais “appear receptive or resigned to a period of military rule,” set against the drawing to a close of the 69-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Other political analysts said they expect further political turbulence in 2016, including increasing divisions within the ranks of the military.
Thailand’s military, with a tight grip on power, says once constitutional reforms are in place, new general elections could be held in 2017.