THAILAND: Student blogger charged with lèse majesté

Norawase Yotpiyasathien, 23, a business administration student who graduated this summer from Kasetsart University, was arrested last week for his online blog posts. He is the youngest and the latest victim of Thailand's lèse majesté law, and his arrest has caused deep dismay among many students.

Norawase was arrested on 5 August in Bangkok, under a warrant issued on 14 October 2010 after a complaint was laid by Kasetsart's Deputy Rector of Student Affairs Nipon Limlamtong, who in turn was reportedly tipped off by students from the same university.

He was charged under Thailand's lèse majesté law and 2007 Computer Crimes Act for writing the blog. Combined, these could lead to up to 18 years in prison.

The lèse majesté law has a conviction rate as high as 94% and punishment of up to 15 years in prison for anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the heir to the throne or the Regent".

The student was released on bail last week after three nights in Bangkok Remand Prison, when his parents put up a 1.6 million baht (US$54,000) bond.

Thousands of websites are blocked in Thailand on the grounds that the monarchy must be defended. In May a Thai-American was arrested and charged with lèse majesté for posting a link to a banned book on a blogpost he wrote in 2007.

Although several academics have been charged with lèse majesté, the student arrest is seen as widening the net and has raised questions about how far students should go in expressing themselves online.

Students dismayed

Mana Chunsuthiwat, an outspoken final-year student in the faculty of arts at Chulalongkorn University, said the case made her fearful. It could happen to anyone, she said, because the lèse majesté law is "quite random" with no standard interpretation.

"If it happens to me, I couldn't afford to fight the case. I would feel powerless. I have no [political] connections, nothing," she said.

Rakchart Wongaphichart, 20, the self-assured student union vice-president at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said: "I think we can express our opinions but they have to be within safe boundaries.

"Of course, I'll have to be more careful of what I say, though usually I'm quite aware of how to express opinions without taking too many risks," he told University World News.

Rakchart, who described himself as politically active, said he was not afraid it would happen to him because he regards the faculty at his university as quite 'liberal'.

The fact that charges were pressed in the Norawase case by the deputy rector did raise concern. Prasai Jhetson, a fourth-year student in the faculty of education at Chulalongkorn University, said that as a student of education, he had respect for teachers. However, "our trust in teachers should be based on their actions, not their status".

He questioned whether some university teachers had moral authority. He said acting morally should include respecting students' opinions, supporting the development of critical thinking, and allowing students to acquire knowledge beyond their texts.

"As a student involved in political activism, I feel freedom of expression is threatened. Even though I don't know him [Norawase], as a fellow student I definitely feel for him. I think students shouldn't be afraid to express their opinions. They should 'dare' to express themselves, but with more consideration for such matters [such as the lèse majesté law] to avoid the possible consequences."

Online 'vigilante' groups

However, in some universities there are deep divisions between pro-royalist and pro-democracy student factions.

A war of words is currently being waged online between those who condemn Norawase, and those who condemn the actions of the deputy rector, who has reportedly said he was pressed to file the charge against Norawase by the university council in order to "protect the university's reputation".

Norawase was apparently 'witch hunted' by a Facebook group calling itself the Social Sanction (SS) group, according to his father. His name, photos, personal address and numbers were posted online, and he was heavily criticised by members of the SS group.

On their Facebook page, the group - sometimes described as 'ultra-royalist' - states that its objectives are "to increase public awareness of corruption and create pressure to combat it and to stop the crime of lese majeste". They add: "Only those with the courage to face the evil will rise to protect and serve the kingdom and the monarchy for the brighter future of Thailand."

On Norawase's arrest they wrote triumphantly "another one is down". Norawase is the first student to face lèse-majesté charges, but the group has also targeted other students.

Last year Natthakarn Sakuldarachart, a politically-active high school student from Ratchaburi in central Thailand, failed to enter Kasetsart University despite having passed the admissions examination. The SS group threatened that if she showed up for the admissions interview, she would be beaten up. She decided not to attend the interview.

Natthakarn, a user of the Semesky online forum which some regard as 'subversive' for its outspoken views, told University World News she was also denied admission to Silpakorn University, which claimed her political views were disrespectful of the monarchy and therefore "not in line with university policy".

Although it is not clear if they were members of the SS group, students who tipped off Kasetsart deputy rector Nipon may have been members of similar self-styled online vigilante groups.

Sawitree Suksri, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, described the SS group's method as "vicious" and "irrational" and a form of online violence that parallels the real-life violence in Thailand. She also noted in a signed article that the ongoing Social Sanction phenomenon appeared to have the support of the Thai authorities.

In 2010 the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies, together with the ministries of Justice and of Education, launched the 'Online Cyber Scout' project that provides training to over 100,000 online volunteers to monitor and report websites that threaten 'national security', including breaches of the lèse-majesté law.

Changes ahead?

David Streckfuss, a Khon Kean-based academic and expert on lèse-majesté, said the number of cases that go to court has risen sharply since the 2006 coup that ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. While before 2006 there were only five to six cases a year that reached the courts, the figure for 2010 was 478. He said the law could be seen as a political tool.

Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lèse-majesté, hopes the situation will improve under the new government and that the lèse-majesté law will be less rigorously enforced.

Newly-elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra "said she's going to support the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has some criticisms regarding the lèse-majesté law. By doing so she gives some space for the government to work through [the issue]," said Streckfuss.

Nirand Pithakvajara, of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, admitted the increasing use and abuse of the law has not done any good to Thai society. He said the commission was looking into the problem.

* See also this week's commentary by Giles Ji Ungpakorn.