Student jailed for anti-monarchy Facebook message

Freedom of expression has again come under attack in Thailand, with a 24-year-old student sentenced to imprisonment for a single Facebook post deemed defamatory to the country’s monarchy.

It is one of a series of aggressive prosecutions of dissidents since the May 2014 military coup. But the latest case also shows that universities are no longer a safe environment for student expression, rights groups said.

Akaradej Lamsuwan, 24, a fourth-year engineering student at Mahanakorn University of Technology in Bangkok, was sentenced for a ‘political’ Facebook message he reportedly posted four months earlier on a Facebook friend’s page.

He was charged under the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crime Act for disseminating information ‘affecting national security.’

Since he confessed in September, the court, during sentencing on 4 November, reduced the five-year sentence handed down to two-and-a-half years.

However, said the presiding judge at the Bangkok Criminal Court: “The act of the defendant is a serious threat, so there is no reasons for suspension of the sentence.”

Previously the court had refused to grant bail while Akaradej was in prison on remand, citing “flight risk”.

Last week, in response to a request from the Thai regime, Facebook revealed that it had “restricted access” in Thailand to “a number of pieces of content reported by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology under local laws prohibiting criticism of the King”.

This was according to Facebook’s Government Requests Report for January-June 2014, which normally relate to criminal cases “such as robberies and kidnappings”.

“Each and every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency and we reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague,” according to Facebook.

“Requests are scrutinised to determine if the specified content does indeed violate local laws. If, after a thorough legal analysis, we determine content appears to violate local law, then we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory,” according to Facebook.

Post-coup prosecutions

Since the military takeover, at least 15 people have been prosecuted under the draconian lèse majesté law.

There has been greater, aggravated use of lèse majesté law, said Anon Chawalawan, a legal documentation officer at iLaw, a legal advocacy organisation, adding that “there has been some pressure on the police and prosecutors to rush those lèse majesté cases.

“Interestingly, being a student at an academic institution can no longer shield them. The military no longer cares whether someone belongs to an academic institution,” he said.

The advocacy group has been documenting cases in its database.

Students affected include Apichat P, a graduate student at Thammasat University – the first person charged with lèse majesté after the May coup. He was arrested after joining an anti-coup protest the day after the coup. The military said text messages were found on his mobile phone allegedly in contravention of the lèse majesté law. He is currently on bail.

Patiwat S, a student from Khon Kaen University in the northeast and a Student Federation leader, was charged with lèse majesté in August for taking part in a political play “The Wolf Bride” staged at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in October 2013, about a fictional monarch.

The play was deemed lèse majesté by the police. Patiwat, who played the role of the King’s advisor in the play, is currently imprisoned on remand in Bangkok, awaiting trial.

Academic forums

The authorities have shut down many university forums and activities, “even arresting people at the university”, iLaw’s Anon said.

In recent months, the military has prohibited at least 10 academic forums from taking place at universities and bookshops, citing disruption to peace and order in society.

Among the academic discussions banned were forums on foreign dictatorships, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Thailand’s interim constitution.

Last month, two military generals pressed charges against a well-known social critic Sulak Sivaraksa for defaming Thailand’s ancient King Naresuan who reigned during the 1850s. They have claimed that his comments during an academic forum entitled “Construction and Deconstruction of Thai History” allegedly defame the monarchy.

Yukti Mukdawijitra, an anthropologist from Thammasat University who had to flee Thailand because of his political advocacy and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, said scholars would preemptively censor themselves rather than risk being imprisoned.

Once charged with lèse majesté, “one is often treated as if he or she is a criminal and has no right to bail, in some cases imprisoned for many years before a verdict”, he said.

“Works on the monarchy published in Thailand are therefore a mainly one-sided view glorifying the monarchy. Whether it is objective information or a critical comment, it can be seen as insulting the monarchy,” said Yukti.