THAILAND: Academics unnerved over lèse majesté threat

Thailand's academic community has been unnerved by the threat of lèse majesté charges against Thammasat University history professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul, with some fearing it heralds a new government crackdown against academics who speak out.

The threats were revealed at a press conference held by Somsak at Thammasat University in Bangkok on 24 April. Somsak said officials had been trying to create a climate of fear and tension over lèse majesté, a draconian law that prohibits any word or acts that "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent".

Somsak claimed the military was behind recent threatening phone calls and motorcycle visits to his home while he was not there. One source told him the army was "prepared to pick him up with five minutes notice" to charge him, he said.

There have been indications for some weeks that the military has been gearing up to use the draconian law against academics. On 7 April, head of the army General Prayuth Chanocha referred to "psychotic academics who are trying to overthrow the monarchy". This, Somsak said, could be seen as directly targeting the academic community and "creating a climate of fear in society".

Viengrat Nethipo, an assistant professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and a member of the Peace and Justice Network, told University World News this was highly unusual as the authorities "traditionally try to avoid charging academics because they can get support from others, including from overseas.

"At universities overall most people who speak out and comment openly try to avoid the monarchy issue. We academics have to speak within the framework of the law," she said

But Somsak was warned by an unnamed policeman in mid-April that a lèse majesté warrant had been issued against him. He had received other "mysterious calls" on the subject, Viengrat said.

Somsak has avoided staying at home and being with friends, but does not intend to flee the country. He has not been officially charged yet. "So far it is more intimidation and threats, in order to silence him and to try to get him to flee the country which would be good for them [the authorities]," Viengrat said.

Somsak was not active during anti-government unrest last year following a military coup in 2006. Protests by anti-government Red Shirts, known because of the colour of their T-shirts, were brutally put down in May 2010. There have been sporadic low-key non-violent protests since then.

But at a 10 December public event, Somsak was on a public panel debating the lèse majesté laws and he spoke about reform of the monarchy. "He cracked jokes and revealed some previously classified data, it was a very exciting speech," Viengrat explained.

"He unexpectedly became very popular among the common people. The Red Shirts who had never heard of him made copies of CDs of his speeches up and down the country because he is a very lively speaker," said Viengrat, who added that all the academics who had organised the 10 December panel had been threatened by the authorities, but only Somsak was facing possible charges of lèse majesté.

On Sunday Somsak denied that he advocated overthrowing the monarchy. "Each and every one of my public statements and written work is premised on the assumption of the continuation of the monarchy. At the same time I do not conceal my view concerning the need to transform and adapt the monarchy according to the principles of democratic governance, the rule of law and the advances of the modern world.

"The law permits people to express their views or make recommendations concerning the necessity of transforming and adapting the monarchy. Such acts are not illegal, they break neither the constitutional nor criminal code," Somsak said.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University now in exile in England after being charged in 2009 with lèse majesté for comments on the Monarchy made in a book said the army took the issue of lèse majesté very seriously "because they depend on the Monarchy to do what they do."

Ungpakorn said even the threat of a lèse majesté charge was "very demoralising".

"It will be hanging over you because if you're found guilty you can be imprisoned for 18 years. The court hearings for lèse majesté are held in secret. Once you get to the court stage there is very little justice and very little support from the national Human Rights Commission, which is stuffed with people who support the military."

In early March Thailand's Justice Minister Peeraphan Saleeratwipak said in parliament that 17 lèse majesté cases were in the pipeline and three new arrest warrants (on lèse majesté charges) had been issued.

The rights group Political Prisoners in Thailand reported that the Department for Special Investigations had said it was gathering evidence to issue arrest warrants on lèse majesté charges against 30 people. "Lèse majesté repression appears to be deepening under the [prime minister] Abhisit Vejjajiva regime," the organisation said earlier this month.

Human Rights Watch has said the lèse majesté law has been abused in recent years, used for the suppression of free speech and for largely political purposes and not just protection of the monarchy.

In an open letter issued in support of Somsak and calling for intellectual freedom in Thailand, scholars of Thai studies located outside the country said they have "watched with deepening apprehension as the space for the free exchange of ideas has dwindled in Thailand.

"What is now clear is that the dissent is not going to disappear from the Thai polity, no matter what repressive measures the state chooses to take. Those in power must realise that discussion and criticism - not blind loyalty - are necessary in a functioning democracy."

Some said that charging Somsak or other academics could be counterproductive for the regime.

"It is reaching a point where people in Thailand are getting angry rather than afraid. Somsak has a wide range of support," Ungpakorn said. "People are mobilising and protesting all the time, on a continuous basis. For those who are already demonstrating, this adds fuel to the fire."

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