A suggestion that Bhumibol was a political actor would, in Thailand, bring about a charge of lèse-majesté, a criminal offence. The notion of lese-majeste, that is, crime against the state or king, derives from the Latin crimen laesae majestatis, the charge of injury done to the majesty of the Roman people. In Thailand, all that truly stood between royal virtue and London-tabloid- style media treatment was the lèse-majesté statute — and that was begining to show signs of fraying in the more open atmosphere of the 1990s. Probing the role of the Thai King in political events is a subject often off limits to mainstream journalists due to the country's lese majeste laws. Crimes of lese-majeste, a hurt to Majesty, are any offense or crime against the sovereign. But in a republic, there is no lese majeste, because there is no institution of majesty to be insulted or offended.
Crimes of lese-majeste in Europe were divided into three categories — defamation of the king, attacks on his life, and plotting against his state. The evolution of this notion of "lese majeste ", better than almost anything else, demonstrates the development which had been going on in the idea of the State. Since the 1500s, it had become clear to legal science that, although the Prince represents the State, the State is in no sense merged in the Prince. Thus arose the new conception of temporal "lese majeste" — a conception which, throughout this whole period, preserved the same character and became clearer only in respect of the systematization that it underwent. Under this head came all evil-intentioned deeds which are directed against the Prince, his councillors, or his gendarmerie, or which created public disturbances, injure the State, betray it, or set on foot conspiracies.
The efforts of later Euopean writers bring order out of this notional chaos. A distinction was taken between temporal "lese majeste" in the first and in the second degrees, — which is substantially that between "lese majeste" proper and high treason. Temporal "lese majeste" in the first degree embraces every attempt upon the person of the Prince, his children, or those in the line of succession to his throne, and every attack upon the State whether by overt act or by secret "leagues or associations." This offense is "one of the most atrocious that can be committed," because Sovereigns are "the images of God, representing in the governance of their several States that authority which is exercised by God in the governance of the Universe."
"Lese majeste " in the second degree (or in the lesser degrees) comprises all offenses "which cause prejudice or damage to the public weal", or "the King's authority", "interfere with the due execution of public justice", or injure the sovereign rights of the Kingdom, and all offenses directed against "the persons or the functions of magistrates or other persons who represent the Sovereign", such as foreign ambassadors.
Thais hold the King and the royal family in the highest regard, and it is a serious criminal offense in Thailand to make critical or defamatory comments about them. This particular crime, called "lese majeste," is punishable by a prison sentence of three to fifteen years. The offenses include actions that in the U.S. would be sanctioned as the exercise of free speech. Use of the Internet for this crime, may subject violators to additional criminal sanctions of up to seven additional years in prison. Thai authorities actively search for and investigate Internet postings, including blog entries and links to other sites, for lèse majesté content. They have arrested and charged U.S. citizens and others with lèse majesté offenses for actions that occurred outside of Thailand. Violators can also be charged if you do not remove a potentially offensive item fast enough from an Internet site you control. Purposely tearing or destroying Thai bank notes, which carry an image of the King, may also be considered a lese majeste offense, as can spitting on or otherwise defiling an official uniform bearing royal insignia.
Thailand's criminal code allows for between three and 15 years' imprisonment for anyone who defames, insults, or threatens the King, Queen, royal heir-apparent, or Regent. Lese majeste charges can be brought by anyone, and some high profile cases have been initiated by ordinary citizens. The King publicly declared on his birthday in 2005 that he would pardon all persons convicted of lese majeste and said he did not believe he should be above criticism. However, police seem compelled to pursue lese majeste cases when complaints are brought. Once the initial complaint is filed, the police typically spend up to six months investigating the allegations before presenting their findings to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The police may not bring a case to the OAG more than 10 years after the initial complaint. According to Somchai Homlaor, a lawyer who has been involved in at least one lese majeste case, the police should handle the entire investigation, but in special circumstances they may consult with the office of the King's Principal Private Secretary.
Lese majeste charges have been leveled against politicians and others in the past, but the issue has become particularly politically sensitive recently, in the wake of the 2006 coup. The 2006 coup leaders criticized the Thaksin administration for committing acts "bordering on lese majeste" when they sought publicly to justify their seizure of power. In 2007, however, the authorities determined they would not charge Thaksin with lese majeste. Press speculation claimed that palace figures had weighed in against such a charge. Similarly, late in 2007, press speculation claimed that palace figures had weighed in against an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the National Legislative Assembly to expand lese majeste to cover members of the Privy Council.
Though lese majeste provisions of Thailand's law prohibit any action that insults the monarchy, they could not stop hundreds of Thai and foreign students and academics from piling into classrooms to hear a debate about the outlawed book "The King Never Smiles," written by American author Paul Handley. A panel of five academics, including two Thai scholars, was held at the bi-annual conference on Thai Studies at Bangkok's Thammasat University entitled "Thai Societies in a Transnationalized World" on January 9-11. Many Thai participants criticized the book, however, for being poorly sourced and full of "gossip," though they did so having admitted to obtaining and reading Handley's book illegally in Thailand. Handley's book is outlawed because it reveals the skeletons in the monarchy's closet to the outside world.
Politicians and allies of the Palace, under the guise of protecting the King, often use lese majeste accusations to silence critical media or opponents. In the first six months of 2008, lese majeste complaints were filed or threatened against a wide range of figures, including a cabinet minister, a former Royal Thai Police Chief, a BBC journalist, and an activist. These cases did not involve direct assaults on the monarchy; some involve slights as minor as skipping royal ceremonies or not standing for the royal anthem in a movie theater. Some subjects of recent accusations say that lese majeste complaints encourage self-censorship and can endanger the accused people. Lese majeste charges have been used by both pro- and anti-Thaksin politicians. The RTG has also moved more aggressively to block websites critical of the monarchy. A lack of clear guidance on the use of the law from the Palace or government means that the cycle of restrictions and resentment was likely to continue.
Lese majeste charges are highly sensitive, often do not lead to prosecution, and often do not receive publicity. Therefore, it is difficult to know how many cases are pending, and whether accusations are being made more frequently now than in past decades. Clearly, lese majeste legal provisions are used by political actors on all sides. While most Thais revered the King, there are also some who would like to diminish the monarchy's power or even abolish it-- although they are constrained in their freedom to advocate this. Lese majeste provisions can protect the King by restricting open criticism of the monarchy, but they also can engender quiet resentment, particularly among segments of the intellectual class who resent having to engage in self-censorship. The King himself demonstrated concern about the enforcement of lese majeste provisions, but a lack of clear guidelines from the Palace or government on the use of the law, or on what actually constitutes lese majeste, means the police, prosecutors, defendants, and complainants will continue the lengthy lese majeste cycle.
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