January 21, 2009

Lèse majesté and Solidarity: the Case of Ji Giles Ungpakorn

On Freedom of Expression

Very few people are able or willing to fight lèse majesté charges in Thailand. Understandably. The prospect of a long term in gaol (any time is a long time in a Thai gaol), the chance of blowing a royal pardon if one pleads not-guilty, the breaking of social norms, such fates must weigh heavily on the minds of those charged with a crime that should have no place in modern law. This law is so morally politicised that its employment is equivalent to the imposition of a religious creed.

For some years the fear that has surrounded lèse majesté has been ebbing, and writings in the Thai language have ventured beyond royal hagiography. The future of Thai democracy will be more robust, in part, because of such work.

Most western academics working on Thailand who care about truth have probably, somewhere along the line, written something that could be construed as lese majeste if their writings were to fall into the wrong hands.

Western academics have been reasonably protected by the language barrier. Generally their work is not translated into Thai and it rarely reaches a Thai audience. Perhaps it is also because their work is not published in Thailand.

Thai Marxist Ji Giles Ungpakorn, an Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, for some time has been willing to test what can be said about the monarchy in both English and the Thai language.

Quite rightly, he is motivated by a desire to understand and explain the nature of Thai politics. You can not do that without talking about the monarchy.

In his fearless book "A Coup for the Rich" he makes some comments about the monarchy and the use of that institution by the military. His right to make those comments should be supported by anyone who cares about freedom of speech, regardless of whether they agree or not with his argument.

Yesterday, the 20th January 2009, he was charged with lèse majesté because of "offending" passages in that book. For this "crime", if proven guilty, he may be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

Liberals, in the classic sense, typically believe in free speech. They assume that the best argument emerges from the free deliberation of citizens. But most political liberals in Thailand have long believed that the monarchy is a safety valve, a para-political institution that can help smooth the processes of economic, social and political transition. They generally fear an unmediated democracy where all are equal. Their willingness to trade the freedom-principle for stability in the name of elite liberalism (and their willingness to pact with statist conservatives) means that they are unlikely to support free speech.

Indeed, some will be pressing for "due process" in this case; that means the application of a "law", the merits of which even the incumbent king, Bhumiphol, questioned in 2005.

If this case goes ahead and Ji Giles Ungpakorn contests it, much more than the very important freedom of one person will be at stake. It is important that anyone who supports freedom of speech opposes the politicised use of lese majeste. I can think of no use of lese majeste that is not politicised.

For more information on Ji's case go to

On Jakraphop's lese majeste case see here