The King of Thailand is wrong

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej waves to we...

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh damn! Now I’ve done it. I can never go to Thailand again. I’ve just committed a serious crime under Thai law. Just for saying “the King of Thailand is wrong”, I could go to prison for 15 years.

Thankfully, I’m not in Thailand. Because this is not some anachronistic old law nobody cares about any more. Hundreds of people are jailed under the lese majeste law every year.

And King Bhumibol Adulyadej is wrong, to allow his people to go to prison under this archaic, disgraceful law.

They include a 61-year-old Thai with seven children jailed for sending private SMSs on his mobile phone critical of the monarchy. A Thai woman jailed for 18 years for “intending to insult”  the royal family at a political protest, even though she didn’t mention them in her speech.

An Australian novelist arrested at Bangkok airport and sentenced to three years because a fictional character in a book he had written years before was alleged to be modelled on the crown prince. The character appeared in a single paragraph of the book, which was a failure and sold only seven copies.

An American citizen sentenced to two and a half years for translating sections of a critical biography of the king that is banned in Thailand and posting them on his website.


NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 27:  International Wome...

Chiranuch Premchaiporn (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

And now, a Thai online journalist, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, is on trial, but not for anything she wrote or said. She faces a possible 50 years in prison. Her crime? Failing to take down anonymous comments posted by some one else on her website quickly enough.

That’s right. She didn’t make the comments. She removed them from the website. But apparenly she didn’t do it quickly enough.

The Thai lese majeste law is an outrage against every principle of free speech and freedom of conscience.  It should be enough to exclude Thailand from the community of civilised nations. Instead, it remains a favourite of backpackers and package tourists. But then, how many of the tourists streaming to Thailand’s islands every year know that they could end up in prison for as little as failing to stand for the Thai national anthem?

We are told King Bhumibol is adored and revered by his people, but it’s very hard to know whether that’s true, when it’s illegal for them to say anything else.

I remember asking one Thai — I shall not name him — what hat he thought of his king. His reply was very careful:

“Well, you know we have very strict laws on this,” he said, “it is illegal for me to say anything negative about him. Fortunately this is not a problem for me, because I love the King,” he added in a deadpan voice.

Around 500 lese majeste cases come to court every year, and there is a 90 per cent conviction rate. Often, but not always, foreign citizens are pardoned after a month or so behind bars and quietly deported. Thais are not so lucky.

The law 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”, but the interpretation of what amounts to insult is extremely broad.

A former BBC correspondent was repeatedly threatened with prosecution until he left Thailand. One of the things he was threatened with prosecution over was allowing some one else’s pictue to appear higher than the king’s on the BBC website.

King Bhumibol is not a powerless ceremonial monarch, nor is he the apolitical figurehead his supporters like to claim. He remains deeply influential, and has repeatedly made political choices with far-reaching consequences for Thailand.

As recently as 2006, he gave his approval to a military coup that ousted a democratically elected government. The repercussions of that coup are still going on today in the conflict between “yellow shirts” and “red shirts”.

Lese majeste prosecutions are not brought by the king himself, and are often initiated by political parties for their own ends. King Bhumibol did speak out against the law in 2005, but after the 2006 coup, his attitue appears to have changed. Arrests rose sharply and he said nothing.

In the meantime the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn goes on, and the outside world says nothing.

Perhaps the tourists so valuable to Thailand’s economy could protest her case by turning up, whole airliners of them at a time, all wearing T shirts saying “I ♥ Thailand, but not the king”, or “Less majesty, more humanity”. Perhaps we could even daub it on the side of a 747. Perhaps we shouldn’t go on holiday in a country that treats its citizens this way.


The world should speak out for Chiranuch Premchaiporn. But I doubt it will happen. I’ve heard the beaches in Phuket are lovely this time of year.


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