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Between a monarch and a hard place

In Thailand, criticizing the king can land you in a heap of trouble. This is true whether you’re a prominent Thai academic and democracy activist, or if you’re an Australian novelist. Lèse majesté (lit. ‘injury to majesty’) is on the law books of several countries that still have monarchies, but nowhere is it used with such chilling effect as it is in Thailand where jail sentences can range from 3-15 years for the mere whiff of criticism of the king.

After a recent spate of lèse majesté prosecutions and attempts by the Thai government to restrict discussion of the monarchy on the internet, a letter to the Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, signed by over 50 prominent scholars and democracy activists calls for a urgent reform of the law and an end to its use in stifling dissent.

Thai academics also earlier circulated an online petition demanding the law be abolished. The petition was reportedly signed by over 1,500 people but, according to the Associated Press, the link to site has now been blocked.

Interestingly, King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself indicated in his 2005 birthday speech, that he did not want to be held above criticism: ‘If you say that the King cannot be criticized, it suggests that the King is not human.”

Democracy activists in Thailand have long argued that the use of lèse majesté laws had less to do with protecting the throne and more to do with the abuse of power by political elites. As Thai scholar (and target of lèse majesté prosecutors himself), Giles Ungpakorn told the Telegraph, the laws ‘are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. In the past the laws have been used to protect governments, to protect military coups. This whole image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace. It’s an issue in Thai society and it’s become more of an issue since the coup because the coup claimed legitimacy from the palace.’

For more information and ongoing coverage see the New Mandala website.

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