A pro-democracy protester gives the three-finger salute while taking part in a rally in Bangkok last month to denounce the use of the lese majeste law. (Photo: AFP)
In Thailand insulting the monarchy or any member of the royal family is against the law and doing so can land you in trouble.
Even so, 87 years in prison for simply sharing audio clips on YouTube made by someone else is a shocking sentence. Yet that’s what on Jan. 19 a court handed down to a Thai woman, a former government official in her 60s.
Her sentence has set a new record for royal defamation, a crime punishable with 3-15 years in prison per charge according to Section 112 of the Criminal Code.
Anchan Preelert, 64, who was arrested in 2015 after a military coup the year before, spent three years and nine months in jail while awaiting trial before being allowed out on bail in 2018. Because she confessed during her trial, her 87-year sentence has been halved to 43 years.
At issue are audio clips with content produced anonymously by Hatsadin Uraipraiwan, a staunch critic of Thailand’s monarchy. Anchan uploaded them 26 times to YouTube and three times to Facebook in 2014 and 2015, according to prosecutors.
As a result, she was charged with 29 counts of royal defamation in all. For sharing links to the clips, Anchan was also charged with violating the equally draconian Computer Crime Act, which effectively censors all online content produced or shared in Thailand.
Ironically, Hatsadin, the creator of the critical audio clips, was already tried in a military court back in 2015 and received a comparatively lenient sentence of two and a half years in prison after he confessed.
Anchan has appealed her sentence, but her prospects appear to be bleak as each count of royal defamation carries a minimum of three years in prison.
“This is the law. The judges couldn’t bring [her sentence] lower. The punishment of 3-15 years under the law is too high,” Pawinee Chumsri, an attorney from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who acts as Anchan’s lawyer, told a Thai newspaper.
Rights activists concur. They view Thailand’s lese majeste law as fundamentally unjust as it restricts freedom of speech and penalizes personal views with very harsh sentences.
“This shocking case is yet another serious assault on Thailand’s vanishing space for freedom of expression,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said in a statement.
“Defamation should never incur a criminal conviction in the first place, let alone an extremely long jail sentence like today’s. Anchan has already faced appalling treatment since being arrested in 2015, including pre-trial detention for years, some of which was incommunicado.”
Seemingly undaunted, Thai authorities have been stepping up their campaign of seeking to silence all criticism of the monarchy, which has become a target of youth-led pro-democracy demonstrators demanding sweeping political reforms, including new constitutional limits on the royal family.
Such demands have been anathema to the conservative establishment, which regards the monarchy as a key pillar of Thai society and an institution above all criticism, however mild.
Faced with raucous street protests by outspoken student activists, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued a stern warning to them last November that the lese majeste law would be strictly enforced.
“The government must take swift action because many people have voiced opinions on the issue [reform of the monarchy]. People nationwide cannot accept this,” argued Prayut, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in May 2014 and remains in charge after nearly seven years.
It is impossible to know the level of support for the royal institution as the lese majeste law itself serves as a powerful deterrent for Thais to discuss the issue honestly and openly. Anyone who speaks out could easily find themselves charged with lese majeste and wind up in prison for years.
In recent weeks, authorities have charged at least 42 people, including two minors still in high school, with royal defamation.
“The fast-rising number of individuals facing charges and being detained under the lese majeste law demonstrates the Thai authorities’ relentless drive to silence dissent,” Mishra said.
This stepped-up campaign of silencing dissent has even drawn condemnation from the United Nations, which said it was “deeply troubled” by the development.
“We call on the government of Thailand to stop the repeated use of such serious criminal charges against individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
“We also urge the government to amend the lese majeste law and bring it into line with the right to freedom of expression.”