A 41-year-old woman was recently sentenced to seven years in prison in Thailand for posting a photo on Facebook, the latest in a string of lèse majesté — insulting the monarch — cases that have marked a climate of increased censorship in a country that is now in its second year under military rule.
The woman, identified as Chayapha C. and described by local news reports as a single mother, allegedly posted a photo of a tank with a caption suggesting the possibility of an imminent counter-coup. A military court sentenced Chayapha to 14 years in prison for lèse majesté and sedition, but halved the sentence after she pleaded guilty.
Chayapha's sentence followed the arrest earlier this month of Thanakorn Sripaiboon, a 27-year-old factory worker, who posted supposedly "sarcastic" comments about King Bhumibol Adulyadej's dog, Tongdaeng. The King rescued Tongdaeng, which means "copper" in Thai, off the street and wrote a popular book about her. Sripaiboon could face up to 37 years in prison on charges of lèse majesté and sedition.
Last week, Thai police also announced a lèse majesté investigation into US ambassador Glyn T. Davies for a comment he made about the lengthy prison sentences under the law.
Several countries, including Germany, Italy, and Morocco, have laws prohibiting insults to monarchs and public officials, but rights groups say that Thailand's lèse majesté laws are some of the strictest in the world. While many countries limit their maximum sentence to five years, in Thailand each comment deemed insulting to the monarchy can carry a criminal charge of up to 15 years.
Though lèse majesté has always been controversial, human rights groups, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have noted that the law has been applied with increasing severity under the junta, with prison sentences reaching record lengths. In August, a man and a woman received record sentences of 30 and 28 years in prison for Facebook posts considered insulting to the monarchy. Rights groups have also criticized the use of military courts for these trials, in which defendants are often not given legal counsel or the right to appeal their sentences.
'Lèse majesté provides a convenient tool for authorities who want to suppress any sense of independent speech or comment on current affairs.'
"We are appalled by the shockingly disproportionate prison terms handed down over the past few months," a spokeswoman for the High Commissioner wrote in a press briefing which urged Thailand to amend the law to meet international standards. "Until the law is amended, such laws should not be used arbitrarily to curb debate on critical issues of public interest, even when it involves criticism of heads of State or Government."
In a recent statement to Reuters, government spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said the lèse majesté law was necessary. "We haven't used this law in a harsher manner but in this period there may have been more people who violated this law so authorities have to deal with them accordingly," Winthai said. "We need this law in Thailand in order to protect the monarchy which is the love of all Thais."
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's prime minister, has also publicly stated that protecting the monarchy has been one of the regime's top priorities.
The severity of the law has led to self-censorship in the press. In September, Eastern Printing PCL, the Thai company responsible for distributing the International New York Times in Thailand, refused to print and distribute an entire issue of the newspaper that included a story about the king's health and the royal succession. This month, the printer censored two articles by the Times in one week, instead leaving blank spaces where the articles were supposed to be placed.
"This second incident in a week clearly demonstrates the regrettable lack of press freedom in the country," the Times wrote in a statement after its second story was removed. "Readers in Thailand do not have full and open access to journalism, a fundamental right that should be afforded to all citizens."
Eastern Printing PCL reportedly said it did not want to print stories that were considered "sensitive to the current situation."
On Monday, the company did not print the Times' story about Sripaiboon's lèse majesté charges.
Local news site Khaosod English also removed its article about Sripaiboon. The site noted that it had not received any orders from authorities to remove the article, but that the site's editorial management "feared that content in the article might lead to possible legal action."
"As a news agency based in Thailand, Khaosod English is obliged to comply with Thai laws," wrote the editors.
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Madeline Earp, a research analyst at Freedom House, a watchdog organization that researches freedom around the world, told VICE News that one of the main problems with the law is that it can be broadly interpreted, and thus abused. Though Thailand's criminal code stipulates that lèse majesté applies to insults, defamation, or threats to the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent, there is no definition for what exactly constitutes an insult or defamation.
"From a legal framework perspective, lèse majesté provides a convenient tool for authorities who want to suppress any sense of independent speech or comment on current affairs," said Earp. "There's so much in current affairs in Thailand which implicates the monarchy in one way or another, that any kind of comment on news of the day can be interpreted to contravene the lèse majesté law."
"This is really about consolidating power for the junta," Earp added. "It's not as much about the content as much as it's really about instilling a climate of fear."
This week, local news outlets showed footage of the king swearing in several judges in a rare public appearance. The king has been in ailing health, and has been in and out of the hospital for different conditions over the past few years. For the second consecutive year, he did not make a public appearance for his birthday, considered a national holiday, on December 5.
Follow Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn on Twitter: @yukvon