Social critic urges Thai premier to act on lese majeste

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva should seek royal advice on changing the lese majeste law that has led to a slew of cases in recent months and forced a prominent academic to flee the country, well-known social critic Sulak Sivaraksa said Wednesday, dpa reported.

   "There is a chance to change the law but the government must have moral courage," said Sulak, 76, who himself faces a lese majeste charge that may be officially lodged with the Attorney General later this month.

   "They need to go to the king and Royal Secretariat and ask what can be done," said Sulak, who was arrested in November on charges of insulting the monarchy in a speech he delivered at Khon Kaen University on December 10, 2007.

   Sulak is one of several people charged in recent months with lese majeste, a law that makes it a criminal offense to insult the monarchy and royal family that carries a maximum 15-year jail sentence and a minimum of three years imprisonment.

   Last month the Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced Australian author Harry Nicolaides, 41, to three years in prison for insulting the monarchy in his novel Verisimilitude, which sold only seven copies.

   Nicolaides has asked for a royal pardon, a request backed by the Australian government.

   Over the weekend prominent Thai academic Giles Ungpakorn fled to Britain after being charged last month with lese majeste for passages in his 2007 book, A Coup for the Rich, which criticized the 2006 military coup that overthrew former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

   Ungpakorn claimed his self-published book was censored by Chulalongkorn University which refused to sell it at the college book store on the grounds that several passages could be construed as lese majeste.

   After fleeing the country, Ungpakorn, a self-professed Marxist, issued a manifesto on the internet titled "Red Siam," calling on the Thai people to "modernize" the country. The manifesto contained several passages that would definitely qualify as lese majeste.

   As a dual Thai-British citizen, Ungpakorn faces no problem living in the United Kingdom, and is unlikely to be extradited to Thailand should the Attorney General pursue the case.

   "For me this is a bit of a cop-out," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "He knew this would be the logical outcome of his remarks. He was setting himself up to be a martyr but as soon as he stepped out of the country it was martyrdom denied."

   The Ungpakorn case is expected to draw more international attention, and criticism, of Thailand's lese majeste law that has been in place since passed under a military regime in 1956.

   Thailand's lese majeste law is deemed the harshest in the world. Although it has rarely been enforced in the past, a rash of recent high-profile cases has drawn international attention to the legislation and increasing media scrutiny.

   Fears of lese majeste content have prompted local agents of the Economist magazine to cancel the distribution of three issues over the past three months.

   At least one prominent foreign journalist, Jonathan Head, South-east Asia correspondent for the BBC, faces lese majeste charges and possible imprisonment.   

   The dramatic rise in lese majeste cases has been linked to Thailand's chaotic politics of 2008, when the monarchy was highly politicized by anti-government protestors who claimed to be defending the institution against elected politicians.

   The government has also launched a campaign to prevent lese majeste on the internet, closing down 4,000 websites in recent months.

   Thailand's new Prime Minster Abhisit has backed the legislation as a stabilizing force, but said his government would "uphold the law, but we must not allow people to interpret the law too liberally and abuse the law."

   Sulak has urged the prime minister to approach Thailand's much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, to find means of modifying the law, to avoid further embarrassment for the government and the monarchy.

   In a speech delivered two years ago the king obliquely criticized the lese majeste law himself, noting that he should not be above criticism.

   "The king is fond of Abhisit and Abhisit ought to have guts," Sulak said.

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