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Somyot Case Ignites Lese Majeste Debate in Thailand

After being detained for 21 months and denied bail 12 times, activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was found guilty by the Bangkok Criminal Court of violating the Lese Majeste (anti-royal insult) law. As editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine (banned in 2010), Somyot was slapped with a 10-year jail sentence for publishing articles that ‘insulted’ the monarchy. Piangtawan Phanprasit made an unofficial English translation of the summary verdict:

The contents of the articles are thus acts of defaming, insulting and threatening His Majesty the King. That the defendant published, distributed and disseminated the articles is hence indicative of the intent to defame, insult and threaten His Majesty in violation of Section 112 of the Penal Code. The publication of two issues at different times constitutes two different offences.

The verdict stunned human rights organizations and global media groups which immediately condemned the court's ruling as an attack on free speech.

Bangkok Pundit links to an article which noted that the Somyot case was the third Lese Majeste conviction in the past month:

Well, despite the fewer cases and last year being a relatively “good” year in regards to the number of people receiving custodial sentences for lese majeste offences, this is the 3rd conviction in the last month. Lese majeste is back on the agenda for now (at least). This is a lese majeste conviction for an insult or defamatory statement and not a threat

There have been changing attitudes towards lese majeste over the past five years. However, as seen with another delay to constitutional reform, the government is sidelining all issues that could lead to confrontation.

Students call for Somyot's release during a university football match. Photo from @anuthee

Students call for Somyot's release during a university football match. Photo from @anuthee

Saksith Saiyasombut recognized the significance of the student protest against the controversial law:

This is quite remarkable, since students (or young people in general) are not really publicly perceived as being politically interested and active (unlike in the past). And Thammasat University struggling with itself over their stance towards Lese Majeste

While the chances for an actual legal change of the lèse majesté law are still unlikely thanks to an unwilling government – despite their red shirt voter base – all these stories show that the public discourse over lèse majesté is very much still alive and ongoing.

Ratch, writing for the Red Shirts blog, hints that Somyot might be eligible to receive an amnesty from the government:

Considering the political nature of Somyot’s case, the UDD hopes that the proposed draft amnesty decree would be applicable to him. The draft decree stipulates that “all persons who have been charged of committing any crime stemming from the political conflict between 1 January 2006 to 31 December 2012″ should be freed immediately.

Cross Cultural Foundation recommends the reform of Article 112 which is often described as the world’s harshest Lese Majeste measure:

The government should make an attempt to have the Penal Code’s Article 112 amended making it become more appropriate and proportionate to a democratic system and in compliance with Thailand’s international obligation regarding Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In particular, the penalties should be adjusted to make them reflect genuine severity of the offence. The preservation of the monarchy cannot be made possible by the enforcement of draconian and undemocratic law.

Students protest against the controversial Lese Majeste law. Photo from Flickr page of Prachatai

Students protest against the controversial Lese Majeste law. Photo from Flickr page of Prachatai

Holger Grafen makes an unofficial translation of the speech of Dr. Tul Sittisomwong who is supportive of Thailand’s Lese Majeste law:

In Thai society we think that if someone who defame, insult, threaten the king is not acceptable in this society. And we state something that the imprisonment is higher than the past, 3 up to 15 years, to tell is high penalty, please not to do it.

So, that's the point. It's not only Somyot case. It is everybody who defame, insult or threaten the king, the queen.

Why, why the Thai people or Thai society accept that is not about the human right, is not about freedom of expression.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, describes the ruling as a blow to free expression rights:

The courts seem to have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights

The court’s ruling appears to be more about Somyot’s strong support for amending the lese majeste law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy.

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