THAILAND: Academic charged in watershed political case

Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a professor of history at Bangkok's Thammasat University, turned himself into the police on Wednesday to hear official charges of lèse majéste after weeks of threats that the charges would be laid. Critics said the case could mark a watershed in using the law against critics of the regime, as it is being seen as clearly politically motivated.

Released after being charged at a Bangkok police station, Somsak told supporters he had denied the charges of insulting the royal family - a serious offence in Thailand known under its French term lèse majéste. "I am confident of my defense. I don't think the charge has any weight at all," he said.

The charges themselves were not made public, and Somsak declined to elaborate on them except to say they were made by the military, not the police. Friends of Somsak said the charges related to an open letter to the King's youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn,who is not covered by the lèse majéste law, hence Somsak's confidence that he could counter the charges. But Somsak's supporters pointed out that the charges merely underlined that Somsak was being used as a scapegoat for political purposes.

Somsak added: "The problem we are facing at the moment is that people who are expressing any opinion different from the official version on the monarchy will be facing being charged under this obsolete law."

During a press conference on 24 April, Somsak first revealed that he believed the charges were being prepared. "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," he said then.

"Regardless of how far this case proceeds, the effects on the esprit and determination of those who would raise the issue of the royal institution in public discussion, will not be insignificant," said Thanapol Eawsakul, a magazine editor with two charges of lèse majéste against him.

At the very least, bringing charges against Somsak would cause him to be more cautious than previously, Thanapol said in an article circulated by academics of Thai studies overseas. "Even so, this is still a crossing of the line that state power had in place previously, which 'allowed' some discussion on this topic as long as it was 'academic' discussion by 'academics'."

The Somsak case is also being seen as a major political touchstone in advance of elections to be held in early July.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former assistant professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who was charged in 2009 with lèse majesté for comments on the monarchy made in a book, also said the military may have overplayed its hand by charging a historian who had analysed the monarchy's role in historical events.

In the wake of the dissolution of the Thai parliament on Monday and the announcement of a snap election to be held on 3 July, Ungpakorn, who is now in exile in Britain, told University World News that "the military definitely want to create a climate of fear and hope this will put people off voting for the [opposition] Phuea Thai Party".

Phuea Thai is the current version of a party originally founded by former prime minister Taksin Shinawatra. Another version, the People's Power Party, won the most seats in the 2007 elections and ruled for about a year until controversial court rulings ordered it to be dissolved.

"The Thai election committee even suggested a month ago that any political party that mentioned the monarchy either positively or negatively would be dissolved, and this [threats of lèse majéste charges] could be another way to ram home the message," Ungpakorn said.

People have tried to get around this by emblazoning 112 on placards and T-shirts - referring to article 112 of the criminal code, which is the lèse majéste law. These have been appearing more often in public in the last month, as opposition to the way the law is being used has mounted.

"Because so many people have been charged with lèse majéste, it's so obvious that it is being used as a political tool," said Ungpakorn.

Mahidol University human rights lecturer Sriprapha Petchmeesri told Thai media: "Apart from curtailing freedom, it has created a climate of fear. This is not good for a society which says it is democratising."

She said room for freedom of expression in Thailand had been gradually eroded, and added that Somsak had been critical for many years so the question was why he had been charged at this time.

Australian National University's Tyrell Haberkorn, author of the book Revolution Interrupted about the student-led uprisings in Thailand in the 1970s, said: "I am concerned that in this current political climate both legal and extralegal intimidation and threats will proliferate to constrict speech and silence dissent in Thailand."

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 83, the world's longest-reigning monarch, has been hospitalised since September 2009 and is not seen in public.

Related links

THAILAND: Academics unnerved over lèse majesté threat
THAILAND: Academics warned not to air political views
THAILAND: Detained professor starts hunger strike
THAILAND: Silence of the academic community
THAILAND: Professor charged with insulting King flees

It's ridiculous to put Harvard on the top in psychology. They're not nearly as good as Michigan and Stanford.

Bill McKeachie