(New York) – Thailand’s military prosecutor should drop the case against a leading scholar for “insulting the monarchy” for his analysis of a 16th-century battle, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 7, 2017, the military prosecutor will determine whether to proceed with the indictment of Sulak Sivaraksa, 85, for violating the Penal Code article 112 on lese majeste, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta initiated legal actions against Sulak in response to his remarks on October 5, 2014, at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Sulak questioned the historical accuracy of a 16th-century elephant battle between the Thai King Naresuan and the Burmese Crown Prince Mingyi Swa, which is commemorated annually as the Thai Armed Forces Day. Sulak reportedly told a seminar “not to easily believe in anything, otherwise they will fall prey to propaganda.”
“The junta’s abusive use of the lese majeste law has reached a new height of absurdity when a prominent scholar is charged with a criminal offense for questioning the occurrence of a 16th-century battle,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Academic freedom and free speech in Thailand will suffer devastating blows if the trial against Sulak proceeds.”
Article 112 of Thailand’s Penal Code states, “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent or Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”
Nothing in the law indicates that it can be used to encompass other figures, including past monarchs or historical narratives connected to past reigns. In recent years, however, Thai authorities have interpreted the law increasingly broadly without apparent support in the text of the law.
In May 2013, the Supreme Court handed down a guilty verdict against Natchakrit Jungruengrit, ruling that he had committed lese majeste because of his comments about King Mongkut, who reigned from 1851 to 1868. The court held that “defaming the former king can affect the current king” and that “King Mongkut was the great grandfather of the current king.”
In December 2015, Thai authorities arrested factory worker Thanakorn Siripaiboon on lese majeste charges for satirical Facebook commentary about a pet dog of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His case is currently on trial in the Bangkok Military Court.
Since the May 2014 military coup in Thailand, at least 105 people have been arrested on lese majeste charges, mostly for posting or sharing critical commentary online. Military courts have imposed harsher sentences for lese majeste offenses than civilian courts did prior to the coup. Some have been convicted and sentenced to decades of imprisonment. For example, in August 2015, the Bangkok Military Court sentenced Pongsak Sriboonpeng to 60 years in prison for making a number of Facebook postings that the court ruled constitute lese majeste, the longest recorded sentence for lese majeste in Thailand’s history. Per standard Thai sentencing rules, the court reduced the sentence by half, to 30 years, when Pongsak agreed to plead guilty to the charges.
The junta has further tightened its chokehold on free expression by claiming an imperative to protect the monarchy. This is despite various pledges by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha and other senior officials, including at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in March 2017, that the government values and will respect the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Frank La Rue, the then UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression stated in October 2011 that: “The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
The junta’s increased use of the lese majeste law has made it more difficult for the police, prosecutors, judges, and other authorities to question the merits of lese majeste allegations – even when those allegations do not conform to the law’s wording – out of concern that they might be accused of disloyalty to the monarchy themselves.
“Governments should make it clear to the Thai junta that prosecuting a renowned scholar for his historical analysis will have an enormously detrimental impact on Thailand’s reputation as a center for learning and academic freedom,” Adams said. “The case against Sulak Sivaraksa should be immediately and unconditionally dropped.”