BANGKOK: Thailand’s monarchy is protected by one of the world’s toughest royal defamation laws making any detailed discussion about the family’s role all but impossible inside the kingdom.
Here are some facts about lese majeste, or section 112 of the criminal code, as it is known in Thailand:
What is the law?
• Under 112 anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir or regent faces between three and 15 years in prison on each count. But the law is routinely interpreted to include criticism that touches on any aspect of the monarchy.
• Prosecutions under the controversial law have skyrocketed since the military took over in May 2014. A string of recent convictions have seen record breaking sentences handed down, the longest being 30 years in jail for a series of Facebook posts.
• A number of people with mental health issues have also been prosecuted under the law.
• Recent lese majeste charges have also been brought against people with links to the crown prince, including multiple relatives of his ex-wife following their divorce in late 2014 and a former soothsayer who later died in military custody. They were all accused of improperly using their ties to the palace to make financial gain.
Who polices it?
• Anyone can make an accusation of lese majeste and the police are duty-bound to investigate.
• Under the current junta, many suspects are now tried in closed military court hearings with no right to appeal.
• Thailand’s ultra-royalist generals have long used their self-appointed position as defenders of the monarchy to justify coups and political interventions in the country’s often turbulent politics.
• A cyber patrol team trawling the internet for royal insults was reinforced after the coup as part of an intensifying crackdown against critics.
• Self-appointed ultra-royalist civilian groups also monitor and report the web for violations.
How many prosecutions?
• There is no transparent disclosure of the official number of lese majeste complaints, arrests, charges or sentences, only an inconsistent trickle of information from authorities.
• According to iLaw, a local rights group that monitors such cases, only six people were behind bars on lese majeste charges before the coup. Now that number is up to 53, with a total of 68 people facing 112 prosecutions since the power grab as of June 2016.
• According to analysis of court data by Thailand-based historian David Streckfuss, the conviction rate for lese majeste cases for the past few decades has hovered at around 94 percent.
• Those who plead guilty to the charges often see their sentences halved.
World’s strictest lese majeste law?
• Absolute monarchies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have stricter penalties but there is no comparative research that shows which countries use royal defamation legislation the most.
• But Thailand’s maximum sentence for lese majeste is two-and-a-half times greater than the highest European sentence of six years in Sweden, according to historian Streckfuss.
• Critics say the legislation has been used to stifle political opponents rather than protect the monarchy.
• Recent prosecutions have also dramatically widened what counts as lese majeste, from academics facing jail for essays on historical kings, to a man prosecuted for satirical comments he made about the king’s favorite dog.
Can the media report on it?
• Domestic and international media must routinely self-censor their reporting of lese majeste cases and the monarchy in general.
• Detailed reports on issues including the taboo topic of royal succession is restricted. Even repeating or summarizing details of 112 charges could mean breaking the law.
Calls for change?
• A group of legal academics, known as Nitirat, submitted a landmark petition in 2012 urging reform of the law with suggestions including prosecuting fewer people, cutting sentences and ending the practice whereby anyone can denounce anyone else.
• But some people have found themselves facing prosecution merely for criticising the law, making any widespread reform campaign unlikely.