Assault on professor underscores battle over Thailand's monarchy law

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The two men came from behind as Worachet Pakeerut was parking his car. One of them punched him in the face and the pair sped off on a motorbike.

“It happened so fast that I couldn’t see their faces,” the law professor and activist said of the attack that left him bleeding and in need of hospital treatment. “Fortunately, other people could see them and were able to describe them to the police.”

Days afterwards, the two men, brothers Supot and Supat Silarat, turned themselves in and told police they had attacked the professor because of his campaign to change a strict law relating to Thailand’s monarchy. “I was not happy,” one of the brothers, Supat, told reporters.

The recent attack on Mr Worachet underscores the increasingly bitter nature of a struggle over Thailand’s controversial lese majeste law, which outlaws criticism of the country’s royals, in a battle that threatens to reopen old political wounds.

Campaigners such as Mr Worachet, say the law is unfair, unaccountable and has increasingly been used against political targets and to quieten dissidents. But groups who want to retain it and which have taken to the streets to demonstrate, say it is important for retaining harmony with the country. They say the only people who are charged, are those who intended to insult the monarchy.

Currently, someone can be jailed for up to 15 years if convicted of lese majeste, which is part of the legal code relating to national security. There is a minimum sentence of three years and there are groups that scour the internet looking for comments deemed to offensive to King Bhumibol or immediate members of the 84-year-old’s family. Anyone can make an allegation.

The proposals to change article 112 of the criminal code would reduce the maximum punishment to three years and scrap the minimum sentence. One of the campaigners, Puangthong Pawakapan, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said it was almost impossible to debate the issue openly.

“In Thailand, the king is seen as sacred and [people] believe he is beyond criticism,” she said, in an interview on the university campus. “I think people outside of Thailand know more about the problems of this law. Also, the Thai mainstream media ignores this issue.”

Those who monitor lese majeste say that from just a handful of cases two decades ago, there are now many dozens every year. Lots relate to postings on the internet.

Among those recently convicted was Amphon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year-old who with seven children was found guilty of sending four offensive SMS messages about the monarchy. In court he pleaded not guilty and said his phone was being repaired at the time the messages were sent. The court was apparently unimpressed because he could not identity the repair shop. This week, the supreme court refused his request for bail.

“The court said he cannot have bail because his case is connected to people’s feelings,” said his wife, Rosmarin Tangnoppakul, who said her husband was depressed and had been unable to attend a cancer check-up since he was jailed. “I now have to contact the lawyer to decide what we are going to do next.”

When Prime Minister Yingluck was elected last summer, she vowed her government would review the lese majeste law. That has not happened, apparently because of street protests and lingering fear that the government could be ousted, either by a formal coup as in 2006, or forced out amid a “constitutional crisis”. A government advisor told The Independent that for now they had decided to leave the issue alone.

Though not a mirror image, the battle over lese majeste retraces some of the political conflicts between so-called yellow shirts and red shirts that have rocked Thai society in recent years. Duncan McCargo, a professor of South-east Asian politics at the University of Leeds, said: “Though in many ways extremely important, the lese majeste controversy has also become a proxy struggle between different competing power groups in Thailand, and Yingluck has clearly concluded that she has other priorities.”

Among those at the forefront of the campaign to retain the lese majeste undiluted is Tul Sitthisomwong, a leader of a royalist group and whose allies include former officers involved in the 2006 coup that forced out Ms Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Tul, who is a senior medical doctor, said he believed the law deserved to be a national security issue, “because the king is the head of state, not an ordinary person”.  Mr Tul, whose group is known as the Citizen Network for the Protection of the Motherland, added: “The goal of the lese majeste law is not to punish people, it’s to protect the peace of the nation.”

In a statement, Amnesty International, said: “We are concerned at the severe restrictions on freedom of expression, resulting particularly from the lese majeste law and the Computer-related Crimes Act. [We urge]  Thailand to suspend application of these laws until they are brought into compliance with Thailand’s international legal obligations, and to release prisoners of conscience detained under them."