A court in Thailand inched closer to its counterparts in neighboring Burma last week when it sentenced an anti-coup protestor to 18 years in prison. The Bangkok criminal court convicted Daranee Chanchoengsilapakul on three counts of lese majesty arising from statements she made in a rally to support the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. In the speech, she connected the 2006 military takeover to the palace, and drew parallels between events in her country and the fate of the monarchy in Nepal, which was abolished in 2008 after a popular uprising.
The charges were brought against Darunee following a complaint from Sondhi Limthongkul, the leader of the army-sponsored anti-Thaksin movement that occupied the prime minister’s offices for three months and the national airport for about a week last year. Neither he nor any of his cohorts have been brought to justice over those events, despite the massive criminality involved, including assaults and alleged murders, wanton vandalism, and theft of public and private property. While targeting opponents for alleged crimes of thought and speech, Sondhi and allies continue to spread their own vitriol through a variety of broadcast and Internet media.
The judges made little pretense of conducting the trial fairly. They denied bail three times, reportedly because they were worried that Darunee’s release would affect public sensibilities, which is not a justifiable reason under the Criminal Procedure Code. They closed the court on grounds of national security. Given that in Thailand even the trials of alleged terrorists have been held in open, it is hard to identify the superior threat that the diminutive 46-year-old former journalist may have posed, even with the nickname “Da Torpedo.” Presumably the real reason for closing the doors was that the accused chose to fight the charges; defendants in lese majesty cases typically just give up, take the rap and then approach the king to seek forgiveness and obtain a pardon. Darunee will not be doing that. She told journalists that she is going to appeal the sentences.
Darunee joins Suwicha Thakor, who earlier this year received ten years for posting offensive images of the king on the Internet, as one of Thailand’s prisoners of conscience. Others awaiting trial over similar alleged offenses include Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of an independent Internet news site, Prachatai, who is being prosecuted under the country’s ambiguous Computer Crime Act. Chiranuch did not say or do anything herself; her “crime” was not having removed sensitive comments from her website quickly enough. The Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based regional advocacy group, has written to two United Nations special rapporteurs seeking their involvement on these and other cases.
Thailand’s judiciary has again shot itself in the foot in its hurry to defend increasingly outdated social arrangements. A court has for the umpteenth time in the last couple of years succeeded in injuring itself while scrambling to protect an entrenched political order that is less and less relevant to a fast-changing society. Although the disservice the judges did to themselves is in certain ways detrimental to everyone in Thailand – declining respect for their institution only further undermines the rule of law – it has also done a service by having the opposite effect from what it intended. Instead of silencing critics, it has triggered a new round of debate and comment at home and abroad about the limits to what can be said, let alone done, in the kingdom. The more courts try to stop people in Thailand from saying what they think, the more people will stop to ask why.