Thailand: Thai monarchy laws need reviewing, say critics pointing to recent cases

A political activist convicted of defaming the Thai monarchy was freed from prison after being granted a royal pardon in the same week that two others were jailed for similar offences despite their cases previously being dismissed by a criminal court.

The recent sentences further highlight the “unconditional taboo” of speaking out against the Thai monarchy, human rights activists say, in a nation with some of the harshest lese-majesty laws in the world.

Surachai Danwattananusorn, 71, a former communist insurgent who went on to lead a branch of the redshirt movement, was sentenced last year to 7.5 years imprisonment for remarks he made in three political speeches during redshirt protests in 2010. Almost 100 people were killed and more than 200 others injured during clashes with the Thai military.

Surachai filed for a royal pardon last year and was expected to be released from a Bangkok prison within hours.

His release follows the appeals court decision this week to overturn previous acquittals made by a lower court in two other lese-majesty cases.

In one case a royalist yellowshirt leader was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for repeating allegedly offensive remarks made by a political rival during a 2008 protest.

Media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, 65, was a senior figure in the pro-monarchy People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement, whose mass protests in Bangkok helped trigger the 2006 coup that forced the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, out of office and led to an extended period of political upheaval.

The yellowshirts went on to lead further protests in 2008 occupying the prime minister’s office and Bangkok’s two airports. It was during one of the 2008 rallies that Sondhi repeated allegedly “anti-monarchy” remarks made by a pro-Thaksin activist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, known as Da Torpedo.

Daranee was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in jail for her comments, while Sondhi’s case was initially thrown out on the grounds that the PAD leader was merely repeating her words to stress that she be prosecuted for those comments.

On Tuesday, however, an appeals court overturned that dismissal on the grounds that, by repeating her comments in public, Sondhi was “[making] those words known to an even wider audience”. Sondhi was released after paying 500,000 baht (£9,865) bail and is expected to appeal to the supreme court.

On Wednesday, the appeals court overturned another previous dismissal, this one concerning online comments posted by a Thai woman to a web board in 2008. While a criminal court initially ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict Noppawan Tangudomsuk of breaching Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, a judge ruled this week that an investigation had “determined the computer’s IP address and showed that the messages posted originated form the defendant’s computer”.

Thailand’s lese-majesty laws punish those found guilty of “defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or heir to the throne or regent”. Each offence carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail. Critics claim the laws are used to silence debate and dissent, with the number of charges filed having greatly increased since the 2006 military coup.

Although King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 85, is considered a popular figure in Thailand, the law protecting the royal institution has been repeatedly condemned by human rights groups, pointing to the infrequency of bail being granted to those accused and the fact that anyone can bring a complaint against anyone else. Critics say a recent case in which a man accused his brother of anti-monarchy comments for reasons appearing to be nothing more than sibling rivalry shows that the laws are in urgent need of review.

Lese-majesty expert David Streckfuss said that although many of the recent court verdicts were from cases launched under previous governments, there was no indication that the current administration – led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra – would review the laws.

“We cannot point the finger solely at Yingluck and her administration,” Streckfuss said. “On the other hand, sentences are not getting any lighter and Yingluck’s government certainly hasn’t tried to alter the public discourse on this topic.”

Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch said the recent cases reaffirmed the “unconditional taboo” of making critical comments about Thailand’s monarchy and added: “There seems to be no limit to who can be targeted by lese-majeste laws and it doesn’t matter which side of the political equation the person belongs to.”