Academics Call for Thai Monarchy Law Reform

BANGKOK ~ A group of academics launched a campaign this week to reform tough laws protecting Thailand’s widely revered monarchy, amid a growing crackdown on alleged violators.

More than 50 foreign and local experts, including famed linguist Noam Chomsky, have signed a letter to be sent to new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that says the law is being abused for political ends.

The letter was unveiled at a packed press conference at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and hosted by two experts who addressed the meeting via internet videophone.

“How far are we going to stand idly under this climate of fear? The lese majeste law has created the climate of fear,” US-based academic Thongchai Winichakul told the press conference over the video link.

Lese majeste, which in Thailand means insulting or defaming 81-year-old King Bhumibhol Adulyadej or any members of the royal family, is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Last month Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was pardoned after being sentenced to three years in jail for slandering the crown prince in a self-published novel.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an outspoken political science professor, fled to Britain last month after he was charged over a book about a 2006 coup in Thailand.

The campaign letter calls for the release of individuals jailed under lese majeste laws, a reform of the law and an end to “suppressive measures against individuals, web sites, and the peaceful expressions of ideas.”

“As scholars and sympathetic observers of Thailand, we are extremely concerned about the recent legal actions taken against Thai and foreign citizens under the lese majeste law,” the letter said.

“Instead of protecting reputations, these lese majeste cases generate heightened criticism of the monarchy and Thailand itself.”

Thongchai and press conference co-host Andrew Walker, who spoke from Australia, both said work commitments had kept them from attending in person but admitted to feeling “cautious” about attending such a discussion within Thailand.

The monarchy’s role in Thailand’s recent political upheaval – involving a self-proclaimed royalist group which blockaded Bangkok’s airports last year – remains one of the most sensitive subjects in the kingdom.

Officials say more than 4,800 web pages have been blocked since March last year because they contain content deemed insulting to the monarchy, and that at least 17 lese majeste cases are currently under way.

Abhisit refused to be drawn on the campaign when pressed by reporters on Wednesday.

“Let’s discuss it next week,” he said.

But the prime minister has previously defended the crackdown, saying there were “historical and cultural differences” between Thailand and other countries.

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