"Criticism can be the fuel that drives governments to do better."
A 65-year-old woman was sentenced to more than 43 years in prison this week by a Bangkok criminal court. Ms. Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, was meted this harsh sentence, not because she committed murder, treason, kidnapping or any other heinous crime, but because the authorities say she shared online posts criticizing the Thai royal family.
Anchan was originally sentenced to 87 years, but her prison term was cut in half because she agreed to plead guilty. Still, it was the longest sentence yet for violating Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law, which makes it a crime to defame senior members of the royal family, the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said. Under this law, each violation carries a 15-year penalty.
Anchan pleaded guilty to 29 separate violations of sharing and posting clips on YouTube and Facebook between 2014 and 2015, her lawyer said. She was imprisoned from 2015 to 2018 while awaiting trial.
Sadly, Anchan’s case is not all that unusual.
At least 169 people were charged with lese majeste in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, according to the lawyers’ rights group, with some cases taking years to process.
Authorities briefly stopped using the lese majeste law in 2018 but police started to invoke it again in 2020 after leaders of the protests, which drew tens of thousands of people, began openly criticizing the monarchy.
Since November, more than 40 youth activists have been charged under the law.
In 2017, the United Nations called on Thailand to amend its harsh law against insulting the monarchy. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was deeply troubled by the high rate of prosecutions and the disproportionate sentences for the offense.
The UN said that since the military coup in 2014 the number of people investigated for violating the lese-majeste laws has risen to more than double the number investigated in the previous 12 years, and that only 4 percent of those charged were acquitted.
Trials are routinely held in closed session, often in military courts where defendants’ rights are limited. In June 2017, a man was given a 35-year sentence for Facebook posts judged to have defamed the monarchy, the harshest penalty to date. In 2015, a similarly harsh sentence was given to a woman in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
In December 2020, the UN human rights office again called on Thailand to amend its lese majeste law, which it said had been used against 35 activists, one as young as 16.
It said Thailand should stop using the law against protesters, noting that criminalizing such acts violates freedom of expression.
The injustice in Thailand’s lese majeste law seems to be self-evident in countries where free speech is protected under the constitution. Most of us, after all, recognize that our leaders—whether they are kings or presidents—are human and are not infallible. We also acknowledge that criticism can be the fuel that drives governments to do better.
Still, we can imagine some of our leaders looking wistfully at Thailand and wishing they too could be legally immune from criticism. In the absence of a lese majeste law of our own, however, they will have to settle for harassment, red tagging, a pliable anti-terror law and libel suits to get the job done.