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Thai military courts hand down record prison sentences for insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2015 Thailand's military courts have issued record prison sentences - 30 years and 28 years - against suspects for allegedly defaming the country's monarchy on Facebook. Two separate verdicts have found the accused guilty of posting content on Facebook that is deemed a violation of the country's infamously draconian lèse majesté law, also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, that states “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The first sentence was delivered Friday morning in the Thai capital Bangkok:

On Friday morning, 7 August 2015, the Military Court of Bangkok sentenced Pongsak S., a suspect of offences under Article 112 or the lese majeste law and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing of illegal content into a computer system), to 60 years imprisonment.

The court gave 10 years prison term to each of the six lese majeste counts he was charged with. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court, however, halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.

Pongsak used Facebook under the name “Sam Parr” to distribute messages and images defaming the monarchy, which he copied from other sources. At the press conference in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to all charges and said he did so because he was instigated by some Facebook friends. He also said that he went to anti-establishment red-shirt demonstrations.

He told Prachatai that he was tricked into meeting a decoy who had been talking to him via facebook under name ‘Numbannok Rak Seri’ (a free country boy) in the northern province of Tak and was arrested on 30 December 2014 at the bus transit in Phitsanulok Province.

“It turned out when I met the guy at the military base later that he was an officer out of uniform,” said Phongsak.

"Military court sets new record on lese majeste sentence; man gets 30 years behind bars", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Hours later on the same day, another military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a woman to prison:

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the military court of the northern province of Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon, 7 August 2015, sentenced Sasiwimol (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), a 29-year-old employee of a hotel in the province, to 56 years in jail for allegedly posting six lese majeste messages under the Facebook identity ‘Rungnapha Kampichai’.

The military court gave 8 years jail term to each of the 7 lese majeste counts of the suspect. However, since the defendant pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the jail term to 28 years.

At the deposition hearing in June 2015, the defendant denied all allegations. However, during the plaintiff’s examination hearing today, 7 August 2015, she retracted her pretrial statements and pleaded guilty.

Prior to the ruling, Sasiwimol submitted a letter to the court, requesting the judges to reduce the jail sentence because she has never committed any crime and is a mother of two daughters aged seven and five. The military court judges dismissed the request and reasoned that the jail sentence is already light since case is severe because it is related to the revered Thai monarchy and gravely affected public sentiment of Thai people.

"Northern military court sends mother of two to 28 years in prison under lese majeste", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Both cases have set an unprecedented record for long prison sentences, since the court issued the punishment per offense that was deemed not only a violation of the lèse majesté law, but also to the Computer Crimes Act. In other words, the accused were punished twice for allegedly violating two vaguely worded laws and also accumulated a long prison term because the courts counted each Facebook post as separate offense. Both defendants have pleaded guilty not only to halve their sentences (the fact that they were still unprecedentedly long is telling) but also to keep the possibility of a royal pardon open.

Lèse majesté-related complaints have sky-rocketed in the past decade (regardless of who was in power) thanks to self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist vigilantes as more verdicts have shown increasingly looser interpretations of the law, rendering a reasonable debate or even a possible amendment of the law impossible. To make matters worse, ever since Thailand's military - which sees itself as the defender of the Thai monarchy - took power in the coup of May 22, 2014, it has transferred jurisdiction of lèse majesté cases to military courts. Unsurprisingly, the number of cases have piled up under the  junta.

The Thai military government is fighting against lèse majesté suspects at multiple fronts: evidently, social media is under increased surveillance and Facebook itself reported a sharp increase of blocked content in the second half of 2014, while it also states that Thai authorities have requested information of certain Facebook users three times.

Furthermore, the junta is hunting a number activists charged with lèse majesté that have fled abroad, often resulting in diplomatic spats, and other repeated requests to countries that have granted asylum to the prosecuted suspects.

Thai court jails theater activists for lese majeste

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 25, 2015 Thailand's courts are continuing to jail people under the lèse majesté law, as two young students have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a theater play. The conviction shows yet again the draconian law is still thriving and even more so under the current military junta.

Dozens of students outside the Criminal Court in Bangkok began to sing when Patiwat "Bank" Saraiyaem (23 years old) and Porntip "Golf" Mankong (26) were taken out of the building (see video below) in shackles and back into their prisons after the judges handed down their sentences: five years in prison, reduced to two and a half. Both students were found guilty of allegedly violating the lèse majesté law by seemingly insulting the monarchy with a theater production.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH0X9mPMjW0?rel=0]

The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to “defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison. The law also prohibits media and anyone else from citing or quoting the details of the offense, as this also constitutes a violation of the law itself.

Use (or rather abuse) of the law has been constantly on the rise for most of the past decade, but has seen a sharp increase since the military coup last May. One of the first orders by the military junta was to transfer jurisdiction of such cases to a military court, as martial law remains since the coup.

Patiwat and Porntip - respectively, a student until his suspension at Khon Kaen University because of the trial, and a recent graduate - were part of the "Prakai Fai" (literally Sparking Fire) activist theater group and staged the play "The Wolf's Bride" ("เจ้าสาวหมาป่า" in Thai) at Bangkok's Thammasat University in 2013, which was the scene of the student-led pro-democracy rallies and its bloody military crackdown in 1973 and 1976.

The play itself is set in a fictional kingdom about a fictional king and his fictional advisor. Nevertheless, its contents (which we cannot elaborate further upon for the aforementioned reasons), were still deemed enough to defame the actual Thai monarchy. Patiwat (who acted in the play) and Porntip (who primarily co-ordinated the production) were arrested last August, while many others of the group have fled Thailand fearing they would be targeted as well.

The fact that a work of fiction is at the center of the offense shows not only the problematic flexible interpretation of the law by the authorities of what constitutes lèse majesté and what doesn't, it also bears some similarities of the case of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. The veteran labor activist was sentenced to 11 years for merely editing political essays - that were written by somebody else - which were at best vague allusions to the royal family. He has been incarcerated (including his detention before the trial) since April 2011 and has been denied bail 16 times so far.

The two accused students have been denied bail six times as well, as have most other lèse majesté suspects. Both defendants have previously pleaded guilty, which doesn't necessarily mean they acknowledge the crime, as this is a standard procedure to reduce the sentence. Also, like many other sentenced lèse majesté prisoners, it seems unlikely that the two will be appealing the verdict, which would leave a royal pardon the only legal avenue to shorten the prison term.

The judges reasoned their verdict and sentencing as following:

"Although the defendants have never committed previous crimes, their action - performing the play in an auditorium at Thammasat University - was an act of defamation and insult in front of numerous people," said a judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. "Moreover, it was disseminated on many websites, causing damage to the monarchy, which is revered by all Thais. Such action is a grave crime that warrants no suspension of the punishment."

"Theater Activists Jailed Over Satirical Play About Monarchy", Khaosod English, February 23, 2015

The judge's assumption that the offenses in that theater play were insulting to the monarchy despite being "revered by all Thais", underlines "the contradictory task of trying to argue how inflammatory the slanderous remarks are (...) while at the same time maintaining that the words have no such effect on them," as academic and lèse majesté expert David Streckfuss wrote once (read here).

In fact, this contradiction has reached new (and absurd, if it wasn't so serious) lows under the current military government, which is hunting for lèse majesté suspects and dissidents alike with vigorous zeal - especially an estimated 40 suspects that have fled abroad.

A change for the better in Thailand is not in sight with the authoritarian military junta at the helm. But dissent is still alive, which is currently mostly upheld by student activists and public displays of resistance still do occur (as seen recently last Valentine's Day), only to be immediately shut down by the skittish authorities.

Porntip's and Patiwat's family members broke down in tears after the verdict was read out, as the dozens of supporters were waiting downstairs at the exit of the Criminal Court in Bangkok and started singing "The Faith Of Starlight" ("แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา" in Thai), a song written by Thai leftist intellectual Chit Phumisak and popularized as a protest anthem by the pro-democracy student activists in the 1970s, which ended with the words:

ขอเยาะเย้ย ทุกข์ยากขวากหนามลำเค็ญ / คนยังคง ยืนเด่นโดยท้าทาย / แม้นผืนฟ้า มืดดับเดือนลับมลาย / ดาวยังพราย ศรัทธาเย้ยฟ้าดิน / ดาวยังพราย อยู่จนฟ้ารุ่งราง

May I mock the miserable thorns of poverty / the people are still standing defiantly / and even the skies turn dark and the moon vanishes forever / the stars are still shining, the faith of the starlight / the stars are still shining, until heaven is obscured

As the choir kept chanting, the pair were put in a transport van. Patiwat "Bank" Saraiyaem and Porntip "Golf" Mankong - the two thespians, now prisoners - calmly and defiantly flashed the three-finger-salute from "The Hunger Games" movies (and declared illegal by the military junta) as the van darted out of the garage to drive them to their prisons.

Thai junta hunts down lèse majesté fugitives abroad

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 15, 2015

The hunt for people suspected of breaking Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law continues, with the military junta even looking to extradite those who have fled abroad while ultra-royalist vigilantism at home reaches a new absurd low.

After months on the run, Ekapop Luara seems have to found asylum, but it is a long way from home and it remains to be seen if he will ever return to Thailand. Nevertheless, he uploaded a picture on his Facebook account showing his and his girlfriend’s new New Zealand passports.

The military coup of May 22, 2014 caused the 23-year-old Thai student, also known as Tang Acheewa, and his partner to flee Thailand, as the military junta rounded up many people associated with the former government and those perceived to be supporters. Hundreds were summoned and temporarily detained, and many have been charged in the intervening months, over 20 of them with the draconian lèse majesté law.

Article 112 of the Criminal Code punishes defamation of the King, Queen, Heir Apparent and Regent with a maximum 15 years prison sentence, but the law has been used more vigorously, practically silencing any debate on the Thai monarchy. One of the first orders during the coup was to transfer jurisdiction of these cases to a military court. Ekapop’s alleged offense dates back to late 2013, when he allegedly insulted the monarchy at a red shirt rally and was subject of an arrest warrant shortly after that.

Ekapop and his girlfriend fled to Cambodia first and stayed for months, under the protection of the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR. They regularly changed location as the neighboring country isn’t entirely a safe haven, especially after the apparent rapprochement of Phnom Penh with the Thai military junta and rumors to forcefully return Ekapop to Thailand. That has not stopped him from constantly mocking the Thai authorities on his Facebook account, which is currently deactivated.

The fact that the fugitive couple suddenly popped up in New Zealand has resulted in some diplomatic tensions back in Bangkok:

Thailand's Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the charge d'affaires at New Zealand's Bangkok Embassy on Tuesday to "express its concerns".

Thai spokesman Sek Wannamethee said Thailand had asked New Zealand officials to clarify Mr Ekaphop's refugee status.

"Mr Ekaphop is exploiting his status granted by the New Zealand Government to conduct political activities which have reverse impact on Thailand's security," he said.

"Such a movement is considered an obstacle to the peace-building process and the good relationship between both countries. Therefore, Thailand requested New Zealand to revoke his status in order to stop his actions against the law."

Thailand wants refugee returned”, New Zealand Herald, January 8, 2015

As of writing, New Zealand officials remain tight-lipped on the matter.

The junta’s reaction is just the latest in a series of increased efforts to extradite numerous Thais accused of lèse majesté that have fled abroad. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan looks to be leading the hunt:

Gen Prawit, who is in charge of security affairs, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants all fugitives in lese majeste cases who have fled abroad, including Thammasat University history lecturer Somsak Jeamteerasakul, to return and fight the cases.

He declined to reveal how many suspects are on the government's wanted list and in which countries these suspects are believed to be hiding.

Gen Prawit, who is also defence minister and deputy chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said some of those countries do not have an extradition treaty with Thailand, or a lese majeste law, which causes problems.

What Thailand can do is ask for cooperation from those countries. Interpol has also been asked for help in extraditing these suspects, he added.

Govt pursues lese majeste suspects overseas”, Bangkok Post, December 28, 2014

Somsak Jeamteerasakul has been a vocal critic against the lèse majesté law and for that has been attacked both verbally and physically by ultra-royalists and in 2013 was hit with a lèse majesté complaint filed by none other than the army itself. In late November 2014, after months of silence and not responding to an army summons, he reappeared on Facebook with a message hinting that he had left Thailand.

The junta leader, former army chief and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised a ”fair trial” for those coming home voluntarily. However, use (or rather abuse) of the lèse majesté law has been rampant since the coup, utilized to silence dissidents (not to mention the online surveillance and media censorship), as evident by a recent pledge of the Thai police to speed up the investigations of such cases.

The recent establishment of an inter-departmental and inter-ministerial committee to find every possible way to extradite lèse majesté suspects from abroad shows a certain frustration among the Thai authorities who are not only unable to get them back to Thailand within certain legal boundaries, but are also struggling also to convince other countries that the junta is justified to hunting them down.

It must be clear to everybody involved - especially those in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs - that it is futile to pursue lèse majesté suspects that have already left the country, no matter what explanation they use. So, why are Thai officials are going about everything involving lèse majesté so overzealously? One simple and short answer would be that it shows to the public that the authorities are working hard to ensure the law is upheld and the suspects are being hunted - regardless of yielding any actual tangible results. Whether or not the intentions behind those efforts are sincere is a different matter.

However, this doesn’t prevent ultra-royalists from rampaging against their perceived enemies and anybody who helps them:

After the report on the New Zealand Herald spread across social media, aided by a translation to Thai that appeared on the right-wing Thai newspaper Naew Na, a number of royalists in Thailand have started calling for a "boycott" of the UNHCR for allegedly helping the "anti-monarchy" suspect.

The campaign, which appears to be coordinated by several Facebook pages, has also urged all Thais to refrain from donating to the UN agency.

Thai Royalists Call For Boycott of UN Refugee Agency”, Khaosod English, January 10, 2015

This kind of extreme Thai royalist witch hunt is nothing new. This week the Facebook page of the UNHCR’s Thailand office was bombarded with profanity-filled threats of boycott and even violence (i.e. one angry user pledged to "destroy the [UNHCR] donation booths and slap the staff! **** UNHCR Thailand!"), so much so that the social media profiles of UNHCR Thailand have been offline since Wednesday morning. Sources have independently told Siam Voices that the accounts were taken down for ”maintenance,” but don’t know when they will return and also could not answer if this was scheduled.

Re-drawing the invisible line: Lèse majesté cases pile under Thailand's junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 23, 2014 Since the military coup, the number of lèse majesté cases has been rising in Thailand as the chances of the accused grow even slimmer under the junta's rule.

The trial was about to start when everybody except the defendants and their lawyers were asked to leave the room. Despite negotiations by observers and in the presence of representatives from the European Union and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the court officials insist the session to continue "in camera” - in other words: behind closed doors.

Some time later it emerged from behind these closed doors that one of the accused, Kathawut B., a radio host associated with the red shirts, has been denied bail for the sixth time, the court citing national security reasons and deeming the defendant a flight risk. Explaining why the public was shut out of the proceeding, the judges claim that these kind of cases could negatively affect "public order and good moral” despite the fact that such cases have mostly been held in public.

The reason cases like Kathawut are becoming more strict is because Kathawut is being tried for lèse majesté.

The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to "defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison.

Coinciding (many observers argue even directly correlating) with the growing political polarization of the past years, the number of lèse majesté related complaints have sky-rocketed even reaching far into the hundreds in 2010. Often such complaints have been politically motivated, either to attack a political opponent or because an individual is perceived as a threat to Thai ultra-conservatism (read our 2013 summary here.)

Things have gotten considerably worse since the coup in May 2014, as the military junta announced days after the hostile takeover of powers that certain cases including lèse majesté are being sent to a military court.

The past few months saw a considerable surge in arrests, trials and sentences relating to lèse majesté cases. The independent news website Prachatai and the legal advocacy group iLaw have compiled a list of such cases on top of those already imprisoned, last updated on September 10, 2014. Among the 21 cases, they include:

7 Apichat P., a graduate student at Thammasat University, who joined a protest against the coup on 23 May 2014 and was arrested. He was the first person that been charged with lese majeste after the 2014 coup. (…) He had been detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison for 26 days before released because the court denied the police’s custody petition. (…)

9 Sombat Boonngam-anong, aka Nuling, a red-shirt activist, was summoned by the NCPO to report himself. Sombat defied the order by hiding himself from the authorities but still was very active online. He was arrested on 5 June 2014 and detained for 7 days in an army camp. He was charged with sedition and was granted bail for the charge. Later police from northeastern province of Roi-et detained him and accused him of posting picture deemed lese majeste on Facebook. Sonbat was granted bail. (…)

14 Patiwat S., a student activist from northeastern Khon Kaen University, was charged with lèse majesté for taking part in a political play "The Wolf Bride" about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.

15 Pornthip M., a theatre artist and former leading member of Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn performance arts group, was charged with lèse majesté. She was accused of being involved with the political play "The Wolf Bride" about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.

16 Yuthasak, a taxi driver, was reported by one of his passenger of defaming the King. The passenger also gave the police the record of their conversation in January 2014. The police from Phayathai police station arrested him from a taxi garage on 2 June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.

17 Akaradej, An undergraduate student from Mahanakorn University of Technology, was accused of posting messages deemed lese majeste on Facebook in early 2014. It was his Facebook “friend” which reported the case to the police station in Sutthisan district. The police arrested him at his house in June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.

"2014 coup marks the highest number of lese majeste prisoners in Thai history,” Prachatai English, September 10, 2014

In addition, the following cases have occurred in the past few weeks:

  • A musician was sentenced to an unprecedentedly harsh 30 years in jail for lèse majesté and violating the Computer Crime Act by a court in Ubon Ratchathani in early October. A legal academic also argues that the judges have incorrectly added 3 years. Since the defendant pleaded guilty, the prison sentence was halved to 15 years.
  • American journalist Tom Plate interviewed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and this resulted in the 2011 book "Conversations with Thaksin: From Exile to Deliverance: Thailand's Populist Tycoon Tells His Story.” Suranand Vejjajiva, former secretary-general to toppled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister), translated this book into Thai. All three are subject to a lèse majesté complaint filed by a former MP of the then-opposition Democrat Party, claiming some parts in the book are "harmful to the royal institution.”
  • Veteran political activist Jaran Ditapichai was charged with lèse majesté on October 16 for organizing the theater play "The Wolf Bride" which resulted in two other people involved in the production also being charged (see the list above). Jaran is currently in exile in Europe.
  • Two retired army officers filed a lèse majesté complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa last week, accusing the 82-year-old of insulting the medieval 17th-century King Naresuan during a seminar.
  • "Same Sky" publishing house has been threatened twice by the military junta with a lèse majesté charge. First, they demanded to delete a Facebook post deemed offensive. Secondly, they ordered Same Sky to stop selling t-shirts with motives they think are offensive. The editor, Thanapol Eawsakul, has been arrested and released twice without trial BBC Thai reports.

It seems that in this current atmosphere - where the media is under close watch, the internet reportedly heavily monitored and public displays dissent not tolerated by the junta - that ultra-royalists in Thailand have almost free reign to act against what they perceive as a threat to the nation and the monarchy.

This is further underlined by the junta’s announcement to rigorously prosecute lèse majesté offenders, in a bid to bolster its moral legitimacy and also make the case of an anti-monarchy movement (and thus one of the needs for a military coup in the first place). It also even seeks extradition of suspects abroad, while junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha recently told them to come back to Thailand voluntarily and promised a "fair" trial.

The ongoing existence of martial law in Thailand has helped in the reactivation of the cyber-scout program, which recruits students into an online volunteer force combing the internet for allegedly offensive content.

In this climate, it also seemingly doesn’t matter how frivolous some of these charges are, as the complaint against Plate, Thaksin and Suranand was filed by a political rival.

But the complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa for allegedly insulting the medieval King Naresuan is particularly ludicrous. The 17th-century king has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the Thai public recently, as he has been the subject of a dramatized bio-epic series - the most recent part launched in Thai cinemas shortly after the coup and the junta organized free nationwide movie screenings for it.

Nevertheless, the implications of this complaint if this actually goes to trial are even more severe: as mentioned above, the law only applies to the current king, queen, heir-apparent and regent. However, the Supreme Court decided last year that it also covers past kings, as a defendant was found guilty to have insulted King Rama IV., who ruled from 1851 to 1868. If Sulak was found guilty, it could affect several centuries of history and it would make for instance critical academic research into it nigh impossible.

It would also re-draw the invisible line of lèse majesté, making it even harder to navigate the legal boundaries of Thailand's already draconian law.

Thailand's junta extends censorship with mass online surveillance

Originally published on Siam Voices on September 19, 2014 Thailand's ruling military junta is further tightening its grip on the public discourse by heightening its censorship measures, going as far as reportedly implementing widespread surveillance of Thai Internet users. The new measure seeks to crush criticism at the military government and  to crack down on anything that is deemed insulting to the royal institution - also known as lèse majesté.

When the Thai military declared martial law two days before it launched the coup of May 22, 2014, one of the main targets was the complete control of the broadcast media, which resulted in the presence of soldiers at all major television channels and the shutdown of thousands of unlicensed community radio stations and over a dozen politically partisan satellite TV channels, primarily those belonging to the warring street protest groups.

Nearly five months later, most of these satellite TV channels (with one notable exception) are back on the air but have been renamed and had to considerably toned down their political leanings before they were allowed to broadcast again. The TV hosts who were last year's heavy-hitting political TV commentators are now hosting entertainment programs or, if they're lucky, return to a talk show format, but only in the name of national "reform" and "reconciliation".

But the military junta, also formally known as the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), still has a firm grip on the media, as it has set up specific monitor watchdogs for different media platforms (and also specifically for foreign news outlets) to screen out critical content against the NCPO. Furthermore, it has practically issued a gag order to the Thai media - only then to reiterate that while criticism against the military junta is allowed,  it should only be done "in good faith".

The censorship measures and the monitoring efforts also extend online. Unlike during the last military coup in 2006, the emergence of social media networks makes it a daunting uphill battle for the junta to control the narrative. Nevertheless, the authorities have always been eager to have more control to filter and censor online content and have blatantly resorted to phishing for user information, and even considered launching its own national social network. And there was this:

In late May, a brief block of the social network Facebook sparked uproar online, while statements by the Ministry for Information and Telecommunication Technology (MICT) and the NCPO over whether or not the Facebook-block was ordered or it was an “technical glitch” contradicted each other. It emerged later through a the foreign parent company of a Thai telco company that there actually was an order to block Facebook, for which it got scolded by the Thai authorities.

"Thailand’s junta sets up media watchdogs to monitor anti-coup dissent", Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, June 26, 2014

The junta also reactivated its "Cyber Scout"-initiative, recruiting school children and students to monitor online content for dissidents, and announced plans for internet cafes to install cameras so that parents can remotely monitor what their kids are doing.

The towering motive of the junta's online monitoring efforts has been recently laid out by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha:

Gen. Prayuth outlined a strategy to "defend" the monarchy in a speech (...) [its] transcript describes the monarchy as an important element of Thai-style democracy and an institution that the Royal Thai Government is obliged to uphold "with loyalty and defense of His Majestic Authority."

"We will use legal measures, social-psychological measures, and telecommunications and information technology to deal with those who are not mindful of their words, are arrogant at heart, or harbour ill intentions to undermine the important Institution of the nation," the speech reads.

Under Section 112 of Thailand's Criminal Codes, insulting the royal family is a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law, known as lese majeste, has been harshly enforced since the military staged a coup against the elected government on 22 May. (...)

"Prayuth Vows Tougher Crackdown On Anti-Monarchists", Khaosod English, September 11, 2014

And in order to achieve this, the junta reportedly doubled down its online monitoring earlier this week:

Thai authorities reportedly planned to implement a surveillance device starting from 15 September to sniff out Thai Internet users, specifically targeting those producing and reading lèse majesté content, a report says. Although the report is yet to be confirmed, it has created greater climate of fear among media.

Prachatai has received unconfirmed reports from two different sources. One said the device targets keywords related to lèse majesté and that it is relatively powerful and could access all kinds of communication traffic on the internet. Another source said it could even monitor communications using secured protocols.

After learning about this, a national level Thai-language newspaper editorial team has reluctantly resorted to a policy of greater self-censorship. Its editor warned editorial staff not to browse any lèse majesté website at work and think twice before reporting any story related to lèse majesté.

"Thai authorities reportedly to conduct mass surveillance of Thai internet users, targeting lèse majesté", Prachatai English, September 10, 2014

On Wednesday, it was reported that amidst severe internet slowdowns across Southeast Asia due to a damaged undersea connection cable extra internet filtering in Thailand has been activated.

There is no doubt that Thailand's military junta is determined to go forward with its own, very exclusive way of governing and tightly controlling the narrative through widespread media censorship and massive online surveillance. By invoking the need to "protect the monarchy", the military has a convenient weapon to act against dissidents in real life and in the virtual domain as well, no matter where they are.

According to the legal watchdog NGO iLaw, over 270 people have been detained by the junta between May 22 and September 5. Eighty-six of them are facing trial, most of them before a military court. Fifteen of those are cases concerning lèse majesté.

Why has Thailand banned the Tropico 5 video game?

Originally posted at Siam Voices on August 6, 2014

Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014 the junta that is ruling Thailand has imposed strict censorship measures on the media and has shown repeatedly that it will not tolerate criticism. Journalists, if they have been temporary detained or reprimanded, have toned their reports down and partisan satellite channels (read: those of political parties) are still off air. The same heavy hand also extends to online and social media, where hundreds of websites have been blocked that carry anti-coup and anti-monarchy contents.

Now, the junta's censorship measures have taken their strangest turn so far:

Censors under Thailand's military junta have banned a city-building simulation computer game, saying it could hurt the country's security, a video game distributor said Monday.

The film and video censorship office blocked sales of "Tropico 5" because they feared "some part of its content might affect peace and order in the country," New Era Thailand marketing manager Nonglak Sahavattanapong said.

She said the office, part of the Culture Ministry's cultural promotion department, did not provide any further explanation in a written statement received by the distributor on Monday.

"Thailand's Censor Bans 'Tropico 5' Computer Game", Associated Press, August 4, 2014

In the fifth installment of the popular strategy and world-building PC game series "Tropico", the player takes the role of a leader in charge of a tropical island in the Caribbean spanning several decades and can either be a benevolent dictator caring for its population or a despot ruling with an iron fist (or anything in between) while trying to keep an eye on the nation's economics, education, foreign relations, military, personal wealth and everything else that's needs to be looked at. In short, the player is in charge of a banana republic and can do what he or she pleases, as long as he or she doesn't get overthrown in a revolution.

The ban by Thailand's junta was quickly picked up in the international media, including major video game news sites such as IGN, Kotaku, Polygon and Eurogamer. Also the game's publisher Kalypso Media stated in a press release:

"We are disappointed to hear that Tropico 5 will not be released in Thailand," commented Simon Hellwig, Global Managing Director Kalypso Media Group. ‘Tropico 3 and 4 both enjoyed successful releases in the country and although the Tropico brand does have a realistic political element to it, the scenarios and content are all delivered with a certain trademark tongue-in-cheek humor.

Stefan Marcinek, Global Managing Director, Kalypso Media Group added ‘Our distributor has been working hard to gain approval for the release, but it seems that the Board of Film and Video Censors deem some of the content too controversial for their consumers. This does sound like it could have come from one of El Presidente’s own edicts from the game.’

Kalypso Media did release a DLC pack titled ‘Junta’ for Tropico 4 in 2011 which challenges players to turn the island into a militaristic society, something Thailand experienced in May this year when a real-life coups d’état saw the elected government ousted by a military takeover.

Press Release: "Tropico 5 Refused Retail Release in Thailand", Kalypso Media, August 4, 2014

Even the fictional "El Presidente" from the game himself tweeted in disbelief that "real life seems to be better than any parody" and a day later gave away copies the aforementioned 'Junta'-add-on pack for the (as of now still available) predecessor.

So, why was 'Tropico 5' banned from retail (as it is likely still available for purchase online) in Thailand?

On Tuesday, the Thai Ministry of Culture - or as we always call them #ThaiMiniCult - revealed further details of the ban:

Cultural Promotion Department chief Chai Nakhonchai said a subcommittee of the Video and Film Office had examined the game and voted 5-1 to ban it, with two abstentions.

He said the prohibition under the Film and Video Act 2008 was because the game allowed players the freedom to name the country and its leader or king as they pleased, and therefore the content was deemed offensive to the Thai monarchy and might affect national security and the country's dignity.

Chai also cited the report as saying that the game had many scenes in an era of "imperialism", which was a compulsory level for all players to go through in order to pass to other eras, and these scenes tended to mock the monarchy institution. Hence it was deemed to violate all previous constitutions of Thailand.

"Banned game found offensive to monarchy", The Nation, August 6, 2014

Where do I start...? First, the feature at the beginning of the game where you can create and customize your own "El Presidente" and name the island you'll rule is indeed a tool where players can let their fantasies run wild. But there has been no substantial evidence whatsoever that this feature has been used to emulate or mock Thailand and its monarchy. Second, the game takes you through several eras from the "Colonial Era" through "The World Wars" to "Modern Times" - but there's no so-called "Imperial Era" as claimed by ThaiMiniCult and there does not seem to be any reference to Thailand and its monarchy whatsoever.

In fact, the whole game franchise is a parody of a stereotypical Latin American banana republic and other historical figures that have meddled there. That has been the case in the previous four games, but the fifth one is apparently too much for the ThaiMiniCult to handle. At this point, the censorship seems already baseless and frivolous - if it wasn't for this cherry on top:

"Playing a game is different from watching a movie, as this game allows all players to express their beliefs without fear of law, so it is inappropriate to distribute such a game, especially during the current situation," he said.

"Banned game found offensive to monarchy", The Nation, August 6, 2014

Putting aside the debate over behavioral effects and escapism in video games (this is still a political blog, after all), the ThaiMiniCult seems to horribly misjudge fact from fiction and what people can potentially create with it. By invoking the ever-sensitive issue of the monarchy the censors are using a theme under which they can easily ban things - but on the other hand neither the developers nor the players probably had originally that in mind and are probably hearing it for the first time!

In other words, the ThaiMiniCult (and by extension the Thai military junta) does not want you to play a video game where you can play a military junta and have free choice about how you govern your fictitious country, since that can apparently already be deemed a political statement, no matter what choices you make in that game.

Well, there's still the classic board game "Junta!" out there to play...

Lèse majesté vigilantism and Thailand's political crisis

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 23, 2014 UPDATE (April 23): The head of the newly created radical royalist cyber-vigilante group has filed a lèse majesté charge against Ms. "Rose" himself. In separate story on Wednesday, Kamol Duangphasuk, better known among the red shirts as a poet under his pen name "Maineung K. Kunthee" has been shot dead by unknown assailants. "Maineung" was also known to be an anti-lèse majesté activist.

ORIGINAL STORY (April 22)

As Thailand's political crisis lingers on, the country's draconian lèse majesté law is still being applied, as two related cases show. Moreover, a new online vigilante group is making sure it stays that way.

The words Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun spoke into the camera were as straightforward as they were blunt. The man more commonly known as red shirt activist and radio talk-show host "Ko Tee" has always been more outspoken than the mainstream umbrella red shirt organization, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and he also doesn't shy away from openly criticizing the monarchy.

In a documentary by VICE News on the current Thai political crisis posted on YouTube earlier this month, "Ko Tee" implies that anti-government protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban "is only the figurehead" and points to somebody higher behind the protest movement.

The reporter asks Kotee what the red-shirts’ demands are. Kotee replies: “We demand that they stop mob gatherings on the streets. We demand the electoral system. They say they love the country. But all they do is destroy it and the economy. I'm fighting the system that has dominated Thailand for a long time. Suthep is only the figurehead. I'm fighting the one who is really behind the mob. You know the meaning, right?"

After a pause, he asks the reporter if she understands the implication of his gesture. He then says the name of the alleged de facto leader of the anti-government protest.

"Hardcore red Kotee target of lèse majesté charge", Prachatai English, April 9, 2014

The reactions were swift and even the Yingluck government were quick to pull the trigger, ordering the police to take legal actions against "Ko Tee", who remains at large at the time of publishing. Furthermore, the authorities have also threatened the public not to share said video, since they could also be implicated for lèse majesté.

That wasn't the only lèse majesté charge this month.

A Thai mother and father have sued their daughter, a vocal anti-establishment red-shirt residing in the UK, for posting video clips of herself defaming the monarchy after they received a storm of hate phone calls from Thai loyalists.

Thai media reported on April 17 that Surapong and Somchintra Amornpat filed a police complaint against their daughter Chatwadee Amornpat, 34, who is now working as a hair stylist in London and holds British citizenship.

Declaring herself a “progressive red shirt” and republican, Chatwadee, aka Rose, recorded several video clips, voicing her opinions on the Thai political conflict and attacking the monarchy and published them on her Facebook profile. (...)

Her parents decided to press charges against her because they were threatened by phone calls from people in Thailand. Pressing charges is to show that they do not condone their daughter’s actions, the parents said, adding that they have warned her to stop defaming the King.

"I want people to understand that just because a daughter is doing something wrong, it doesn't mean the parents are also guilty, because we don't condone such actions," Khaosod English quoted Surapong as saying.

"Parents sue daughter for lèse majesté", Prachatai English, April 19, 2014

While "Rose" is in the United Kingdom, she could be arrested if she returns in Thailand. What is more striking in this case is not only that the parents are filing a lèse majesté complaint against their own daughter, but also the apparent climate of fear in the form of the threats made against the parents.

Such a climate of fear and pre-emptive social obedience - something we have mentioned a few times here when it comes to (over-)emphasizing one's loyalty to the monarchy - has now gained another supporter in form of an online vigilante group. The Facebook group, roughly translated to the "Organisation to Eradicate the Nation's Trash" ("องค์กรเก็บขยะแผ่นดิน" in Thai), has taken it upon itself to, as the name implies, to “exterminate” those that in their view "insult, defame and discredit the monarchy." The group, opened by a former military doctor called Dr Rienthong Naenna, has as of writing more than 140,000 likes since its launch a little over a week ago.

Pro-monarchist vigilantism online is not a new phenomenon in Thailand - at one point in recent history it was even state-sponsored. Those accused of being critical of the monarchy have often been the target of cyber witch hunts. Victims of such attacks have often have their personal details and contact information disclosed in public.

But the aforementioned group is seemingly upping the ante:

Mongkutwattana General Hospital director Rienthong Nanna, who unveiled his new Rubbish Collection Organisation (RCO) last Wednesday, yesterday warned critics that he would “respond with violence” to any violent attacks committed against his supporters.

It came as Dr Rienthong claimed yesterday that about 7pm on Saturday he saw “suspicious-looking men” in three cars lurking outside his house on Chaeng Watthana Road. (...)

Dr Rienthong said he was working on the establishment of a “People’s Army to Protect the Monarchy”, which would recruit people in every region (...). He also invited retired military and police officers who are loyal to the King to a meeting (...) to discuss the establishment of “a special task force of old soldiers” to help the National Police Office punish perpetrators of the lese majeste law.

However, Dr Rienthong told the Bangkok Post that his “People’s Army” and the soldiers task force are not intended to persecute or use violence against fellow Thais. Their mission will be only to look for lese majeste suspects and bring them to justice. He denied the RCO is a rogue organisation and vowed that it will operate within the law, without links to political or business groups.

"Monarchists vow to fight ‘armed threat’", Bangkok Post, April 20, 2014

Even if the online mob does not translate its vigilantism into the real life, it does plant yet another dangerous seed in the already hatred-filled plains by naming their perceived enemies as "trash" and vowing to collect and "eradicate" them. The radical monarchists are setting a dangerous precedent, which some observers have compared to the Thammasat massacre of 1976. The holier-than-thou mindset of those claiming to defend the monarchy is further polarizing an already emotionally charged political crisis and could damage the monarchy in the long run more than they're actually protecting it.

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 2: Lèse majesté and the media in the crossfire

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 28, 2013 Welcome to the second part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series. Today we highlight the state of freedom of speech, which is still endangered by the draconian lèse majesté law. We also take a look at the ongoing protests, where Thailand's media itself became the story.

As the current chaotic protests are dominating the headlines, earlier this month yet another man was found guilty of defaming Thailand's monarchy for posting two anti-monarchy messages on a web forum. Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also more commonly known as the lèse majesté law, cites that "whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." However, this time there was also this:

The third offence was related to an attempt to insult the monarchy. The prosecutor made the accusation that evidence on the defendant’s computer showed that he had prepared to post another lèse majesté message on the web forum, but the attempt failed because of his arrest and the confiscation of his computer. He was found guilty under Articles 112 and 80 of the Criminal Code for the attempted offence and was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. Nevertheless, the judges did not give the rationale for their decision.

"Thai man found guilty of attempted lèse-majesté", Prachatai English, December 12, 2013

With the other offenses he was sentenced to a total of over 13 years in prison, but it was reduced to six years and eight months due to his plea of guilty and "beneficial testimony". It is an unprecedented and worrying ruling since for the first time somebody was convicted of "attempted lèse majesté", invoking Article 80 of the Criminal Code.

But given the lèse majesté sentencings of this past year, it is clear that things have not improved - it may have gotten even worse.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk

In January, a red shirt leader was sentenced to two years in prison for merely hinting at the monarchy. Later that month, veteran activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was found guilty of lèse majesté in a high-profile case with much international attention and followed by strong reactions. His offense: editing - not writing himself - two political essays that at best made allusions to the royal family for a now-defunct political red shirt magazine. Somyot was sentenced to 11 years even though he had already been in detention since April 2011 and been denied bail 15 times until today.

Numerous lèse majesté complaints filed this year also showed how frivolously the law is being misused: an activist targeted for distributing mock banknotes depicting Thai historical figures other than the King; a TV host filing a complaint against a student activist months after she was sitting on it; a sibling rivalry turned bitter with one brother accusing the other of insulting the King, causing him to be jailed for a year before he was acquitted; and even ex-yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul was found guilty because he quoted inflammatory remarks by somebody else. In related news, a court upheld a suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting web comments quickly enough that were deemed insulting to the monarchy.

In November, the courts added a new dimension to lèse majesté that was previously unheard of by stating that the law also applied to previous kings, thus not only arbitrarily expanding taboo topics, but also making critical, academic research into current Chakri dynasty impossible.

What is apparent is the need to openly discuss the law and how it is being misused, as ThaiPBS attempted to earlier this year. But it was met with outrage and resistance by a vocal minority, still maintaining and promoting the perception that even talking about the law is illegal, which is factually wrong and deliberate misinformation. With the current political polarization deeper than ever, even a consideration to reform the lèse majesté is now further away than ever.

Also worrying is the increased usage of 112 in combination with the Computer Crimes Act - which we have criticised numerous times before - as an effective tool to crack down online dissent. So it came as no surprise when the commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD] Pol. Maj-Gen Pisit Pao-in emerged as the new self-appointed chief censor, brazenly using scare tactics to curb political online rumors. Likely emboldened by the sudden public attention, he went a step further and threatened to monitor the mobile messaging app LINE, demanding the developers behind it cooperate (to which they refused). You know when you've taken it too far when even the ICT minister (not widely known as a free speech proponent either) disagreed with Pisit's audacious plans and the latter was soon forced to backpaddle.

Media in the crossfire of protesters

With the country's relapse back to street protests, so grew the news coverage of them both in the domestic and international media. With the volatile political situation the fight over the sovereign narrative was in full swing and again, those not agreeing were at the receiving end of accusations of being biased with even physical attacks against both local and foreign colleagues.

The protesters felt misrepresented especially by the foreign media and fired back in the same vitriolic manner as they did back in 2010 with a sense of hurt national pride, entitlement and superiority. However, the protesters - equipped with their own satellite TV channel and other media outlets - have so far failed to present credible non-Thai language sources to back up their claims. In a similar vein they also targeted Thai free TV stations during one of their rallies in early December. The TV channels have greatly resisted the hostile takeover attempts and the pressure to cease their broadcasts and switch to the protesters' channel.

It is said that "journalism is the first rough draft of history" and it looks like, thanks to the protesters' attitude to the media, the first drafts will be less than favorable towards them regardless of the outcome.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Thai webmaster Chiranuch loses appeal against suspended sentence

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 8, 2013 Thai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn has lost her appeal against her sentence for not deleting online comments deemed insulting to the monarchy quickly enough from the now defunct web board of the Thai news site Prachatai. The Criminal Court found her guilty in May 2012 and initially sentenced her to 1 year in prison, which was then reduced to an 8-month suspended sentence thanks to her testimony and a THB20,000 (US$630) fine.

The court stated that Chiranuch had failed to delete one comment for 20 days, whereas the other nine objected comments were deleted within 10 days, thus violating against Article 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act which punishes “false data” that damages a third party, causes public panic or undermines the country’s security and “any service provider intentionally supporting” the said offenses, respectively – despite the fact that the court also states that the expectation to pre-emptively delete illegal comments was “unfair”.

On Friday morning, the Appeal Court turned down her appeal, essentially agreeing with the Criminal Court's original verdict, adding that Chiranuch should have known better based on her professional experience:

This case highlights the flawed legal foundation: the Computer Crime Act (CCA), which became effective in 2007, is vaguely worded and leaves a lot of room for interpretation and thus also legal arbitrariness, which can be made worse in conjunction with the draconian lèse majesté law (which Chinranuch isn't charged with in this case, by the way). A new version of the CCA is currently being drafted and already faces criticism by several Thai journalism associations (we will take a closer look at it in a future post).

Today's ruling shows again the ambiguous legal situation not only for online users, but also for providers of online content platforms, as they can be held liable for the contents of others. In the context of free speech, it is a severe hindrance to open discussions especially on politically sensitive issues. The condescending remark by the judges that the defendant should have known that online platforms could be used "to defame the King" is a strong hint of the authority's duty to protect the royal institution from any perceived danger, even if it means restricting online debates and online users have to censor themselves.

Ex-yellow shirt leader Sondhi found guilty of insulting Thai monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 2, 2013 Thai court sentences former leader of the ultra-royalist and reactionary yellow shirts movement Sondhi Limthongkul to two years in jail for lèse majesté, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

Things went from bad to worse for Sondhi Limthongkul, the media mogul turned leader of the so-called 'People's Alliance for Democracy' (PAD) aka the yellow shirts, on Tuesday:

The Appeals Court on Tuesday sentenced Sondhi Limthongkul, a core member of the People's Alliance for Democracy, to three years imprisonment after finding him guilty of lese majeste, reversing the lower court's decision which acquitted him of the charge. The prison sentence was reduced by one-third to two years in jail because his testimony was deemed useful.

Mr Sondhi was charged that on July 20, 2008 he went up the stage and made a speech at a rally of PAD supporters at Makkawan Rangsan Bridge over a loud speaker.

"Sondhi gets 2 years for lese majeste", Bangkok Post, October 1, 2013

In that speech, which was broadcasted by his own satellite TV channel ASTV, Sondhi quoted pro-Thaksin supporter Daranee Charnchoengsilpaku, more commonly known as "Da Torpedo", demanding her arrest and prosecution.

Daranee's reportedly very strong remarks made in 2008 criticized the military coup of 2006 and the monarchy, which led to her arrest and sentencing to 18 years in jail. But, following a petition from her, the ruling was nullified and her case was declared a mistrial (we reported) since the hearings were not made accessible to the public and the media. Nevertheless, she remained imprisoned and the retrial in 2011 still found her guilty, sentencing her to 15 years in jail. Earlier this year in July, it was announced that Daranee will seek a royal pardon after more than 5 years of imprisonment and several have reported health concerns.

This lèse majesté charge against Sondhi - filed by the police - originates as far back as 2008 as he was issued an arrest warrant shortly after the aforementioned broadcast and eventually faced trial in 2011 after several delays. In September 2012 he was acquitted of the charges by the Criminal Court, as it found that Sondhi had "no intention" of breaking the law. Now, a year later, a higher court has overturned that ruling.

For Sondhi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for corporate fraud earlier this year, it is another blow for the man who led a powerful and controversial political movement, more commonly known as the yellow shirts. The group is notorious for their street protests and the siege of Bangkok's airports in 2008 (the trial has yet to commence) in their continuous campaign to rid Thai politics of the influences of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (a former business partner of Sondhi), including the current government of his sister Yingluck.

In August, Sondhi and other high-ranking leaders announced their resignation from the movement after they failed to convince their former allies, the opposition Democrat Party, to quit parliament in an effort to topple the government. While all involved insist that the PAD is not dead, their departure effectively disables the already marginalized movement (for now), despite the ongoing existence of ultra-royalist, anti-democracy and reactionary political offshoots.

The lèse majesté case and the conviction against Sondhi shows that even supporters of the monarchy and proponents of the draconian law are not exempt from the deeply flawed Article 112 of the Criminal Code. The reasoning of the judges clearly shows the 'logic' of the law and its perceived purpose:

The Appeals Court found Mr Sondhi guilty as charged, reasoning that it was not necessary for him to repeat Ms Daranee's remarks in public. In doing so, Mr Sondhi caused other people to know what Ms Daranee had said and to talk about it, thus affecting the monarchy.

"Sondhi gets 2 years for lese majeste", Bangkok Post, October 1, 2013

In other words, Sondhi made himself an accomplice to the crime and it doesn't matter if it was used in order to vilify her and demand her arrest, since Daranee's words - as with all other allegedly offensive remarks in all lèse majesté cases - are not publicly discussed outside the court rooms. As explored in a previous blog post here, prosecutors have the contradictory task of pursuing offenses against the monarchy (and also the often cited "national security") yet at the same time insist that they do not have an effect on them personally as loyal Thais.

Notably, while countless other lèse majesté prisoners are rejected bail and remain imprisoned while awaiting trial - as authorities claim they are a flight risk - Sondhi Limthongkul yet again walks free on bail (reportedly 500,000 Baht or $16,000 in this case) and probably will never see the inside of a prison cell.