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Insult the Monarchy in Thailand and You'll Soon Be Headed to Prison

Designed to curb blasphemy or affronts to the royal family, Thailand's draconian lèse-majesté laws have been wielded to suppress any criticism of the monarchy and constitution.

by Liz Fields
Nov 24 2014, 10:30pm

Imagen vía Sakchai Lalit/AP

Yet another Thai journalist has learned the hard way that espousing any sort of written or spoken insult aimed at the country's ailing king will be met with jail time.

A Thai military court sentenced web editor Nut Rungwong to four and a half years in prison on Monday for publishing a piece five years ago on E-News, the Thai website he runs, which the court determined had defamed Thailand's monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Rungwong's sentence was cut in half because he pleaded guilty, an official in the army's Judge Advocate General's department told the Associated Press.

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The article at the center of the controversy was written in 2009 by Thai-British academic and activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who, facing similar charges, fled to Britain that year. E-News has since been blocked by censors.

Originally designed to curb blasphemy or insults to the monarchy, Thailand's lèse-majesté laws, which are considered the most draconian in the world, have been wielded to suppress any criticism of the monarchy and constitution and silence political opposition. Since the military seized control of the country in a coup in May, deposing the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, its vigorous enforcement of the laws has seen a spike in arrests and convictions handed down to activists and journalists.

Reuters reported over the weekend that two senior Thai policemen are also facing charges of insulting the king, under which they could be jailed for up to 15 years. The policemen also face unspecified criminal charges.

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Thailand's military junta has lately increasingly curbed free speech and expression, including recently jailing a number of students for displaying a three-fingered salute inspired by the dystopian Hunger Games movies. The sign was employed widely as a symbol of silent dissent during mass anti-coup protests in the months after then-army General Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted Shinawatra and her government, declared himself interim prime minister, and suspended the constitution. He was eventually unanimously voted prime minister by the country's legislature.

Rights groups continue to condemn and call for amendment of the lèse-majesté laws, which Human Rights Watch says are being "misused" as a "political tool."

"[The law] has an incredibly chilling effect on free speech in Thailand, where people are unable to discuss basic political issues in the country," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. "Even reporting why people are put in prison can constitute a crime in Thailand, which makes it one of the most Orwellian laws that exist in the world today."

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Many of those convicted under the laws are outspoken academics or members of the "Red Shirt" movement supporting the populist governments of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who has been living in exile in Dubai since 2008 to avoid corruption charges.

The 86-year-old King Bhumibol, widely respected and seen by the general population as a unifying force in the country, has reportedly been suffering medical issues, and has been hospitalized since undergoing surgery on his gallbladder last month. The world's longest reigning monarch is expected be succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the same level of popular support as his father and is suspected of being close to Thaksin Shinawatra.

Michael Kugelman, senior associate in Asian studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told VICE News that the energetic prosecution of the laws has apparently not tarnished the public's strong opinion of the king as a "benign, benevolent, all-knowing, and venerable individual."

"The Thais tend to blame those that enforce those laws rather than the subject of the laws itself," Kugelman said. "The king's reputation for the most part remains quite high. It says something about his popularity but also about this incredible image of him and how strong and resilient it has been, despite assumptions that the people's opinion could start to sour on him."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields