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Update on LML cases in Thailand

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments


We are all Ar Kong now: Human rights on the slide in Thailand

By Andrew Spooner Nov 25, 2011 9:26PM UTC


It’s been a terrible week for human rights in Thailand.

Things began badly with the start of the trial of labour activist and journalist, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, on lese majeste charges. Somyot, who is being held in quite deplorable conditions, transported from prison to prison and province to province in shackles, faces up to 30 years in prison.

Then news came that left-wing Red Shirt leader, Surachai “Sae Dan” Danwattananusorn, who is also being held on remand on lese majeste charges and who is almost 70 years old, was thinking of changing his plea to guilty after his health condition deteriorated dramatically.

Next, as has been widely circulated in the global media, 61-year-old grandfather, Ampon Tangnoppakul, was sentenced to 20 years for sending 4 SMS messages to Somkiat Krongwattanasuk, an aide of Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva .

Ar Kong being arrested (from New Mandala)

At the same time as Ampon aka “Ar Kong” (his nickname, meaning “grandpa”) was being sentenced, the Democrat Party hosted a press conference announcing the establishment of a “cyber warriors” group to stalk those deemed to be committing lese majeste. A Democrat Party spokesperson also stated that they were seriously considering filing criminal charges against the present government’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies should they not pursue every single lese majeste charge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, the present Pheu Thai government, eager to jump on the repressive bandwagon, issued a statement saying that they’d prosecute Facebook users for clicking the ‘like” button next to any content deemed lese majeste and that they had asked for 10,000 Facebook pages to be deleted.

Finally, news is coming through that a prosecution for lese majeste is going ahead against an unknown Facebook user (announced on Thai lawyer Anon Nampha’s Facebook page) who posted unspecified content on Facebook.

So where does all this leave human rights and freedom of expression activists?

Amnesty International, whose Thailand-based researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, has previously made comments that are supportive of the application of lese majeste (see below), have rather belatedly made a statement lambasting the draconian sentence in Ampon’s case. True to form, he has nothing at all to say on the case of either Somyot, Surachai or any of the other lese majeste victims. Previous evidence also exists that points towards Zawacki colluding with the former Democrat Party government in deciding if infamous lese majeste detainee, Da Torpedo, should be considered a “prisoner of conscience”.

Zawacki’s earlier thoughts on lese majeste should not be forgotten.

We have felt that working in a more private capacity than in a public way is the most appropriate and the most effective response on the lese majeste issue to date. There is an implicit knowledge of the sensitivity of this law [and] there are competing interests at stake; one is the right to freedom of expression. But you have an institution here that has played an important role in the protection of human rights in Thailand. We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected.

It would actually be very reasonable to surmise that Zawacki and Amnesty’s previous inaction and collusion have played a part that led to the point where lese majeste prosecutions have reached their recent zenith and a climate where the kind of savage sentence handed down to Ampon becomes possible.

But Amnesty are not alone in this failure. The diplomatic corps in Thailand – with the USA out in front – have submissively tolerated the abrogation of freedom of expression and human rights in Thailand for quite some time now. The case of US citizen Joe Gordon, who allegedly committed lese majeste several thousands of miles away in Colorado, has been a case in point. The US mission in Bangkok has been utterly pathetic in supporting Joe, its ambassador seemingly more interested in appearing in photo shoots than protecting the rights of her fellow citizen. Her swatting away of Nation journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk’s question regarding Joe Gordon during a vist of Senator John McCain is very revealing.

And where have Thailand’s social and international media been while the likes of Da Torpedo were left to rot in a Bangkok prison cell? Did any major media outlet attempt to visit her in prison or attempt to highlight her case? It seems not. While one can understand the reticence of some Bangkok-based journalists to take on such stories why can’t they at least publicly acknowledge the restrictions they work under?  (They seem very keen to do so when nations deemed as “hostile” by the West have similar restrictions – this recent article by the BBC about the Palestinian Authority complains extensively about “reporting restrictions”.)

Thankfully some international NGOs, such as ARTICLE 19, have been consistent in their condemnation of lese majeste. Their statement yesterday regarding Ampon’s case cuts to the heart of the issue.

“This verdict is shocking and shows the Thai authorities’ complete disregard for freedom of expression,” says Dr Agnès Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director. “We were encouraged last month when the government admitted that the use of the lèse-majesté law can adversely affect freedom of expression, however this latest development proves those words to be empty. We are saddened for Amphon and this extreme injustice.”

During Thailand’s human rights review before the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, ARTICLE 19, and a number countries including France and Norway publicly stated that the lèse-majesté law, by its very existence, constitutes a threat to legitimate political expression and freedom of expression.  Many other nations including Indonesia and Brazil expressed concerns and recommended reform of the laws.

ARTICLE 19 is also alarmed about the lack of reliable or compelling legal evidence in this conviction. Although the judge conceded that the technical evaluation of evidence could not conclusively incriminate Amphon, the court proceeded to find him guilty.

Since his arrest on 3 August 2010, Amphon has been detained without bail and will likely be moved to a high penalty prison on Friday 25 November 2011. ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about Amphon’s welfare, as he suffers from laryngeal cancer and lacks access to proper medical treatment.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate reversal of Amphon’s conviction and for his immediate release.  Whilst under government authority, Amphon must be given proper medical care to ensure his well-being. Furthermore, ARTICLE 19 continues to call for the lèse-majesté law to be repealed and for the Computer Crimes Act to be brought in accordance with the Thai constitution and international standards.

Yet, the most depressing aspect of the entire situation is the lack of space to hold a proper public debate. Some supporters of lese majeste on extremist PAD supporter websites were calling for Ampon to be “decapitated” and have promised public disorder, with an implied threat of violence, if any proper reform of lese majeste takes place. The elected government appear weak and divided, unable to stand up to the forces arrayed against them and succumbing to ever more repressive practices. The Thai-based international NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch appear both politicised and collusive and the international media seem compromised.

What is certain is that the savagery of Ampon’s sentence is pushing the situation to breaking point. As I sit and write a 61-year-old grandfather is rotting in a Thai prison – the message is stark; this could happen to anyone. We are all Ar Kong now.

Andrew Spooner’s public Facebook page is available here – all are welcome to join.

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