Student faces prison for speaking out in royalist Thailand

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Student faces prison for speaking out in royalist Thailand” was written by Kate Hodal in Bangkok, for The Guardian on Sunday 4th March 2012 19.05 UTC

She is the very embodiment of modern Thai youth, dressed in flip-flops, T-shirt and shorts, and sipping an iced coffee with friends after university lectures. But 20-year-old Kanthoop is not just another university student. The social welfare major has been spat at, publicly denigrated, threatened by police and faces up to 15 years in jail – for little more, she says, than “having opinions”.

“I know my case is symbolic, and I’m happy about that. There is good that comes from somebody standing up and wanting to make change – sooner or later people will start to realise that.”

To understand why Kanthoop might be so vilified is to understand Thai society. Twice a day – at 8am and 6pm – time stands still in this nation of 69 million as the national anthem sputters out of public loudspeakers and everyone is expected to stand in silent salute.

The routine testifies to the adoration Thai people feel for both their nation and their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, a man so revered that many shops and homes bear his portrait. But that reverence is backed up by the world’s strictest pro-monarchy regulations, which sentence anyone who insults, defames or threatens the king or his family to three to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Opponents argue that the law, known as Article 112, prevents healthy dialogue and is being used as a political tool to stifle dissent. Charges of lese-majesty, though in existence since 1908, have jumped since the military coup in 2006 that ousted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was widely criticised for attempting to undermine the monarchy, an accusation he has long denied.

In 2010 – when royalist forces bloodily battled with Thaksin supporters – 478 lese-majesty charges were made and 75,000 websites blocked. Human rights groups, as well as the US, EU and UN, have voiced concern over the way the law is used.

A group of Thai academics and activists, called Nitirat, have since proposed amendments to the law, but current prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, has vowed not to touch 112 — promising in January to “protect the [royal] institution, not exploit it”. The debate has consequently been left to rage in the streets, where Nitirat’s members face threats and harassment by royalists.

“This is about national security, not just about the king,” said royalist Dr Tul Sittisomwong. “Thai people are not that well educated … We’re not that open to layers of discussion without fear of violence [regarding this subject]. The king makes peace in our society.”

But the existing “hyper-royalism” in Thailand has spiralled out of control and may actually be working to the detriment of the nation, said Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of south-east Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who spent two years in prison after participating in a 1976 pro-democracy protest that saw over 100 demonstrators killed.

“Just look at the hyperbole [used] to describe the monarchy, the religiosity with which Thai people love the monarch and the public participation of all this royalism,” he says. “People are now afraid of their colleagues” — because anyone can bring forward a charge of lese-majeste, he adds.

It’s an issue that Kanthoop knows well. Police began investigating her case in 2010 after she posted Facebook messages that were later cut and pasted by others, who she says distorted what she wrote and forwarded it by email to authorities. At her police summons on 11 February, Kanthoop was told that her case had been postponed to an unspecified date while police gather more evidence.

If charged, she may well be 112’s youngest offender, but she will probably not be the last. Last week a Thai court sentenced a 71-year-old redshirt supporter to 7½ years in prison, while last year a 61-year-old was jailed for 20 years for sending defamatory text messages, and a Thai-US citizen was jailed for 2½ years for translating a banned biography of the king.

Kanthoop’s political journey began in 2006, when she refused to stand up in the cinema for the royal anthem that plays before every film. “That was the moment for me,” she says. “I decided that I have the right to stand up or not, to pay respect to whatever I believe in.”

While her highly politicised views have not won her many friends at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, the only university to accept her even though she passed the entrance exams for two others, Kanthoop is not alone in her fight. A group of activists recently went on hunger strike outside the capital’s criminal court to demand that those detained on charges of lese-majesty be granted bail. “This law needs to be reviewed,” says 20-year-old Panitan Pruksakasemsuk, whose father Somyot is one of those detained. “Society needs to be open to change and willing to adapt to that change.”

As for Kanthoop, while the future is uncertain, her approach to it is not. “If I have to go to jail, I will,” she says calmly. “Even if it’s for life. But I won’t plead guilty to reduce my sentence, and I won’t ask for the king’s pardon. I am guilty only of freedom of thought.”

• This article was amended on 7 March 2012. The original referred to the postponement of a ‘court date’ for Kanthoop. This has been corrected.

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4 thoughts on “Student faces prison for speaking out in royalist Thailand

  1. I would like to lodge a complaint on Kate Hodal. After reading Kate’s article in The Guardian Monday 5th March 2012 I felt she had presented the matter with disrespect to a whole nation. Kate reports on a 20 year old Thai student who faces prison for comments she has made about the Thai monarch. First and foremost Kate’s claim to understand Thai society is by simply knowing that they play the national anthem twice a day. Is this really how we get to know a society of more than 65 million people, by one daily activity? Next the national anthem of a whole nation is presented by Kate with negative connotations as she states: “the national anthem sputters out of public speakers”. Sputters? Is this how you would describe another countries national anthem being played. I would expect such language use in other newspapers but not in a well established British newspaper like The Guardian. I don’t think any persons from any other country would like to be told that their national anthem is sputtered through anything! Played is more than appropriate while ‘sputters’ would seem to have negative connotations.
    The mention of ‘Royalist forces’ in bloody battle with Thaksin supporters is bleak in supporting evidence and misleading. Many of Thaksin supporters love the monarch just as much as Thanksin but in Kate’s article it is suggested that Thakins’s supporters are against the monarch as she structures her article with ‘royalist forces’ in battle with Thaksin supporters. If she had done even a little research Kate would know that Thaksin’s supporters simply want him back; for what reasons is down to every individual. Human rights groups, US, EU and UN is said by Kate to have voiced concerns over the way the monarch law is used but Kate fails to supply any supporting evidence, in fact none.
    Kate claims that the current prime minister has vowed not to touch the law about the monarch because the debate has left rage in the streets, also because she faces threat and harassment by the ‘royalists’. Where is Kate’s evidence after making such strong claims? Kate fails to mention that more than of a majority of the country support the monarch so who are these mysterious ‘royalists’ she refers too? By Kate’s claims and facts this means that most of the people in Thailand are these royalists however she seems to speak of such a group as if they were a small group of people; she is commenting on most of the nation’s people. But she speaks about this one student and refers to a few comments made by some people as if they were the voice of the nation; extremely unfair and an unbalanced judgement to be presented to a majority and public who don’t know that much about Thai society.
    Kate also states as already mentioned ‘rage in the streets’, if there were such rage in the streets why couldn’t she prove it with pictures of such things instead of a picture of the King and Queen of Thailand; the focus of the article was this 20 year old student. The picture also fails to showcase what the King has done for Thailand. If the monarch as presented by Kate is so highly feared by the Thai people in terms of what one can say, Kate does not say what the monarch has specifically done to make the people feel they have to say something against it.
    Two major concerns of the article are the two false statements. The Thai national anthem is said by Kate to testify to the adoration of both their nation and their King however the national anthem lyrics are not about the King. True most people stand up in respect to both but for some they stand in respect for their country. Kate suggests it is always for both, as if this was wrong. The second false claim is that the national anthem is played before every film in the cinema however it is not, it is a song for the King that is played before every film in the cinema. Kate Hodal is giving out false information in a respected newspaper.
    With such claims Kate fails to present a balanced argument and does not mention why the King is loved and respected by the majority of Thai people: little things like the King and his family hand out (in person) a degree certificate to every student that they can that graduates every year (were talking in the thousands); the King spent majority of his time when he was healthier with the farmers of the nation teaching and learning with them more effective ways of growing crop; the King built a bridge in Bangkok that connects three main parts together. Apparently because of one girl’s case, Kate has written an article that does not analyse and evaluate the whole situation. Kate gives a bias opinion that reflects her own beliefs and not that of the nation she speaks of. It’s for this reason I lodge a formal complaint against Kate Hodal for her one sided article that speaks as the voice for a nation of people through one girl’s case, quite bias and extreme wouldn’t you agree? Especially by giving out false information!

  2. Hi, Maewlai. In order to lodge a complaint, you will have to go to the Guardian website. I doubt they would ever read comments here. But thank you for sharing your point of view.

  3. Please help Brit in Thailand Bangkok KLONG PREM PRISON PETER DARREN CHECKLEY B-5 will die soon. i am a close friend to Peter he is very well liked. he is doing a life sentence of which he has now done 4 years. he has no visits no letters he is all alone. the britsh embassy comes to see him from time to time but Peter does not.go to see them. he realy is inocent and has the prof in black and white stamped by the big police in Chanthaburi. the English Embassy have a copy and say yes we can see he is inocent and the British Goverment says the same. but do not do a thing to help. many of us here can easyly see by the paperwork PETER DARREN CHECKLEY has he should never be here. his been in Thailand over 20 years never been in trouble has wife children bessness but all lost and gone. Please help him if only to get his side heared i have been asked by 22n prisoners to beg you to help. A man should not die like this not when he is inocent. even the Thai Law its writon its better to let go 10 gilty men than to put one inocent man in prison. well Peter is that one inocent man. Peter Darren Checkley B5 Klom Prem Prison
    I AM NOT ASKING AND HE DOES NOT WANT MONEY ONLY TO BE HEARD.

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