Suwicha Thakhor has spent two months in a Thai prison, accused by police of insulting the royal family. He says he should be allowed to express an opinion.
Arrested Jan. 14 and charged in connection with material posted on the Internet, the 34-year-old oil engineer spends his days missing his wife and three children.
“We have to be able to think freely,” Suwicha said on March 4 at Klong Prem Central Prison, his eyes red with tears. “They cannot stop ideas by sending people to jail."
More than a dozen similar cases are pending under Thai law as a widening political divide prompts discussion on the future role of the monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, has ruled for six decades, making him an enduring force in a country that has seen 10 coups since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.
Succession “is the single biggest variable that shapes Thai risk,” said Robert Broadfoot, managing director of Hong Kong- based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. Equating King Bhumibol’s integrity with that of the monarchy as an institution “is an assumption that will be tested by the transition.”
Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” The law, called lese-majeste -- it means injury to majesty in French -- makes it a criminal offense to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. Offenders face as many as 15 years in prison.
The law is meant to stop negative comments about the monarchy that “might affect the very security of the kingdom of Thailand,” Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said in an interview last month. “What has been happening the past several years is attempts by various political groups to bring the monarchy down into the political arena.”
Besides Internet postings, pamphlets disparaging the royal family have started appearing around Bangkok in places where they haven’t been seen before. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former professor at the city’s Chulalongkorn University, was charged in January with lese majeste for his book about a 2006 coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Giles fled to the U.K. last month after calling for a republic.
“The lese-majeste law is no different from contempt-of- court laws where you protect institutions that are neutral, that have no self-defense mechanism,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a Jan. 31 interview. On March 6, he told reporters the law would be reviewed to make it “clearer.”
Abhisit, 44, came to power three months ago after backing the People’s Alliance for Democracy, a Bangkok-based protest group. It waged a six-month street campaign to remove the pro- Thaksin government, which it accused of trying to establish a republic. Members wore yellow, which represents Monday, the day of the week on which King Bhumibol
Suwicha, wearing a prison-issued yellow shirt emblazoned with a royal insignia, said his views on the monarchy changed after the coup that deposed Thaksin. Police tracked his Web postings, which he wouldn’t discuss, and read his e-mails, he said. He was arrested after dropping his kids off at school.
“In the past, people fled to the jungle to share their political beliefs,” Suwicha said, referring to a Communist insurgency in the 1970s that was suppressed by the government. “Now we have Web sites. If they want to stop it, they must stop the technology itself.”
Blocking the Internet
The government blocked more than 2,000 sites it says affront the king in the first two months of this year, and is on pace to quadruple the number in 2008, said Aree Jiworarak, director of the Information and Communications Technology Ministry’s Information-Technology Regulation Bureau.
A parliamentary committee created a site last September encouraging people to report royal insults. In 2007, Thailand blocked access to Google Inc.’s YouTube for five months after it carried a satirical video of King Bhumibol.
Almost a dozen lese-majeste cases are under way, including ones against an anti-government leader and a Buddhist activist, according to the Web site Political Prisoners in Thailand. Two women are being held for lese majeste in the same prison as Suwicha for speeches they gave at anti-coup rallies.
Last week, the director of the Thai and English-language news service Prachatai was charged for failing to quickly remove user comments seen as offending the monarchy.
More than 50 international scholars, including some from Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities, wrote to Abhisit this month saying “recent legal actions” under the lese-majeste law “led to the deterioration of basic civil liberties.” They urged the dropping of all cases and said enforcement of the law had led to “heightened criticism of the monarchy and Thailand itself, both inside and outside the country.”
Last year, the People’s Alliance for Democracy clashed violently with the Red Shirts, comprising Thaksin supporters and opponents of military rule. Jakrapob Penkair, a Red Shirt leader, faces a lese-majeste charge filed by police officer Wattanasak Mungkandee for a 2007 speech, in which he called the political struggle a “head-on clash” between democracy and patronage that “would change Thailand and its foundations.”
“A healthy society is where people can express their perceived-to-be crazy ideas and other people are strong enough to ignore them and go on with their lives,” Jakrapob said in a March 4 Bangkok interview. A day later, the attorney general put off for 30 days a decision on whether to bring his case to trial.
Going to the Funeral
King Bhumibol hasn’t commented publicly on last year’s protests, which claimed at least five lives. Queen Sirikit, 76, presided over the funeral of a People’s Alliance protester killed in clashes with police.
The constitution allows for either a prince or princess to succeed King Bhumibol. His only son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 56, has taken over more official duties in recent years, including presiding over the first meeting of parliament last year.
In his 2005 birthday speech, King Bhumibol said he didn’t consider himself above criticism. “Because if you say the king cannot be criticized, it means that the king is not human,” he said. He has in some cases pardoned those convicted of lese majeste, including an Australian author sentenced to three years in prison in January for insulting the royal family in an obscure novel that sold a handful of copies.
Suwicha, who has twice been denied bail, said he’s hoping for “a miracle.” If freed, he plans to work on a farm and live a private life. Still, he makes no apologies for his beliefs.
“Thais are starting to think new things, have new ideas,” he said. “I don’t belong in jail. If we disagree about politics, we must talk to find a solution."