Thailand has some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world and even if you are an occasional visitor to Thailand, it’s something you need to be aware of. In basic terms, lese majeste can be defined as an offence that insults the monarchy. The issue is a serious business in Thailand and shouldn’t be underestimated by overseas visitors.
The term ‘lese majeste’ is derived from Latin and French and translates as ‘injured majesty’.
Article 112 in Thailand
Article 112 of Thailand’s Penal Code states, “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent or Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”
Historically in Thailand, it’s been an offence to insult the monarch and it was included in Thailand’s first criminal code in 1908. The law is also enshrined in Thailand’s constitution, which states: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”
Application of the lese majeste laws
Anybody in Thailand can accuse another person of lese majeste and once the accusation is made the Thai police are obliged to investigate. The exact nature of what causes an offence remains ambiguous and recent legal cases in Thailand have shown that judges and prosecutors have a wide interpretation of Article 112. There are also many ways to fall foul of the law.
In 2011, 61-year-old Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of sending text messages deemed to be offensive to the monarchy. Ampon insisted he was innocent and had not sent the messages. He died in prison in 2012.
In May 2014, the Thai Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict in a lese majeste case that revolved around comments made about King Mongkut (Rama IV), who reigned from 1851 to 1868. The court ruled that “defaming the former king can affect the current king.”
In August 2014, a Bangkok taxi driver was prosecuted for comments deemed derogatory to the monarchy. The taxi driver had been discussing politics with a passenger in his cab. The passenger recorded the driver’s comments on a mobile phone and handed them to the police. The taxi driver was sentenced to five years in jail which was then halved for pleading guilty.
In 2015, lese majeste charges were brought against a man relating to comments and images he’d posted online about the king’s dog, named Tong Daeng.
Critics of Article 112
In many cases, the details of the exact charge aren’t made public out of fear of repeating the original offence. Human rights groups inside and outside of Thailand say the scope for interpretation of the law is too broad and penalties too severe. There have also been accusations, particularly in recent years, that the law is being used as a political tool.
In his birthday address to the nation in 2005, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej said, “The King is not infallible and is ready to accept criticism.”
Lese majeste law applies to foreigners
Although the vast majority of cases of lese majeste have been brought against Thai people, the law applies to foreigners too. If you are in Thailand or planning to visit it’s something that you should keep in mind particularly when it comes to social media.
In 2007, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for defacing pictures of the King of Thailand. He received a royal pardon a month later and was deported from Thailand.
In August 2008, Australian Harry Nicolaides was arrested at Bangkok airport as he prepared to board a flight. An arrest warrant had been issued concerning a book he self-published in 2005 and which contained references to the Thai monarchy. The Australian man was sentenced to three years in jail, but was pardoned after spending six months in a Thai prison. Nicolaides later said the self-published book which landed him in so much trouble had only sold seven copies.
In November 2015, the U.S. ambassador in Thailand, Glyn Davies, made a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok. The ambassador criticised some of the long prison sentences handed out to those guilty of lese majeste. Thai authorities subsequently announced a complaint had been made and they were formally investigating Davies on suspicion of lese majeste. The ambassador has diplomatic immunity from arrest and legal charges. Thai authorities have hinted they could seek other reprimands although it isn’t clear what they would be.
Lese majeste and the media in Thailand
Thai broadcasters and journalists are bound by the lese majeste law, but that also applies to non-Thai reporters in Thailand who have to be careful about how they word certain topics.
International websites are sometimes blocked in Thailand when they carry stories, videos or images that are deemed to be offensive to the monarchy. Amongst those that have been blocked in the past are YouTube and the Daily Mail (UK). There have also been cases where publishers and distributors in Thailand have taken their own action to prevent stories thought to be too sensitive from hitting the newsstands. Print publications affected include The Economist and the International New York Times.
Be careful on social media
Some of the most recent arrests for lese majeste have been made over posts on social media sites. Cases have been brought against people for posting images and making comments on Facebook that negatively portray the Thai royal family. Even hitting the like button on certain posts or sharing images has been enough to bring charges.
In August 2015, the Bangkok Military Court sentenced a Thai tour operator to 60 years in prison for his alleged lese majeste Facebook postings. The judge handed the accused a 10-year prison sentence for each of the six Facebook posts. The content of the posts is not known. The sentence was later reduced to 30 years when the accused pleaded guilty. In a separate case relating to posts on Facebook, a 29-year-old hotel worker and mother of two children was sentenced to 56 years by a court. Her sentence was also halved following a guilty plea.