Criticism Mounts Against Thai Royal Defamation Law

A tough royal defamation law in Thailand must be repealed rather than wielded against a young pro-democracy movement, protesters, law scholars and rights defenders told VOA, as calls mount for the international community to condemn a section of the penal code that smothers criticism of the monarchy.The kingdom, Southeast Asia’s second largest economy and a strategically pivotal nation wooed by both the U.S. and China, is locked in a political crisis, the latest chapter in a recent history defined by coups, aborted civilian governments and rival street protests.The role of the palace, headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn — by some estimates the world’s richest monarch — has been thrust to the center of protester demands for sweeping reforms to a kingdom where the arch-royalist army reaches deep into politics and a super-rich establishment strides over one of Asia’s most unequal countries.Months of protests calling for the end of the battered government of ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and a new constitution to unplug the military from power, have waded into the dangerous ground of monarchy reform.Meet the Relentless Thai Rights Defender Taking on the Powerful The rights defender and legal advocate has been threatened, harassed and targeted by online trollsPlacards declaring “My Tax” and “End 112” — referring to a section of Thailand’s penal code — dot every protest, while speeches take unprecedented aim at the monarchy’s money and alliance with the army.Authorities say they have crossed the threshold of the broadly worded section 112 lese majeste law, which carries a prison sentence of from three to 15 years for each charge of “defaming, insulting or threatening” the royal family.But to those in its crosshairs, the law is faulty.“It is dubious, questionable… the interpretation is too broad and vague,” said Watcharakorn Chaikaew, 22, a student activist among 24 summoned over recent days by police for 112.“I mean it’s even a crime to criticize a king who died a century ago.”Thailand has officially been a constitutional monarchy since 1932.But the palace has at least endorsed — and at worst, protesters say, directed — endless coups by an army that refuses to allow democracy to take root.The demonstrators, who have largely been peaceful over months of boisterous, creative rallies, want the palace to be bound by the constitution and break its bond with the army.They accuse the monarchy of mission creep during four years of rule by Vajiralongkorn, who has swept the crown’s multi-billion-dollar assets under his direct control — along with elite army units — and shuffled arch-royalists into the top ranks of the army, government and palace inner circle.Previously, enforcement of lese majeste was opaque, with alleged violations going unreported lest they contravene the law.“That undermines the public trust completely in what actually is a violation of royal defamation and what’s not,” said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of Cross Cultural Foundation, a human rights organization.Defamation Case Dropped Against BBC Reporter in Thailand 

        A Thai lawyer has withdrawn a criminal defamation case against a British BBC journalist involving a report on foreigners being defrauded of property, the BBC says.

The case against Jonathan Head, BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, had begun Wednesday and has been criticized as an example of how Thailand’s harsh criminal defamation laws can be used to intimidate journalists. 
The BBC said in a statement Wednesday that the plaintiff had withdrawn the case against Head, who said via Twitter Thursday…
Over the years, the law has been applied over transgressions ranging from criticizing a king who died around 400 years ago and another who mocked a favored palace dog of Vajiralongkorn’s beloved father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in a Facebook post.Political weapon?Critics say the law exists only to muzzle pro-democracy movements, a claim buttressed, they say, by 24 recent cases.The youngest of the protesters now targeted by the law is 16.“Legally speaking, article 112 is very problematic,” said Teera Suteevarangkul, a law professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University and member of a group of legal scholars pushing to change the law.“It should not be categorized under national security section of the criminal code; the punishment is disproportionate, and lastly it has been used as a political tool.”Watcharakorn, one of the student activists, was recently summoned over a protest at the German Embassy, where he read a statement urging the European nation to probe whether the king has been running Thai affairs from the lavish Bavarian villa where he has spent most of his time since acceding to the throne in 2016.A summons is a legal step that typically precedes formal charges in Thailand’s complicated legal system. “If the monarchy lives off of taxpayers’ money, why can’t we criticize them? I want the international community to pressure Thailand to abolish this law because it violates human rights,” he told VOA. “Thailand deserves the same as those countries that protect rights.”The protesters handed a petition to the U.N.’s Bangkok headquarters on Dec. 10 to press the Thai government to repeal the law and expunge prior convictions.“The simple fact [is] that the victims of this law are mostly pro-democracy people,” the statement added.The international community has largely remained mute on the pro-democracy protests.But in late November, international human rights attorney Amal Clooney urged all charges to be dropped against the protest leaders, some of whom have been hit by multiple allegations that could result in decades in jail.The king has yet to address the protesters directly.Instead he has been on a charm offensive, carrying out rare meet-and-greets with royalist fans to sponge away his image as a figure distant from his subjects.In a deeply divided country, there are powerful voices who believe the law must be enforced to its fullest against young radicals threatening the status quo.“The monarchy represents national security, so if you insult the monarchy, you commit a crime against the sovereign order,” Somchai Sawangkarn, one of the 250 senators appointed by Prayuth and endorsed by the king, told VOA.“There’s nothing wrong with the law, it’s those who commit offenses who are wrong.”

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