BANGKOK (Reuters) - Police filed formal charges against Thailand’s leading leftist political commentator on Tuesday, accusing him of insulting the king in a 2007 book criticising the previous year’s military coup.
Giles Ungpakorn of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University denied all charges, and said the army and Democrat Party-led government were merely using Thailand’s draconian lese majeste laws to crush dissent and freedom of expression.
“Lese majeste is being used to destroy free speech,” Giles said outside the central Bangkok police station where he heard the charges he said stemmed from a complaint filed by his own university bookstore which had pulled the book from sale.
“The lese majeste laws are there to protect the military and to protect governments that come to power through military action. They’re not really about protecting the monarchy,” he told reporters.
As he left the station after 30 minutes of questioning, he was greeted by a noisy crowd of 20 red-shirted anti-government supporters waving banners calling for the scrapping of the law.
Insulting any aspect of the monarchy is taken extremely seriously in Thailand, where many people regard King Bhumibol Adulyadej as semi-divine.
It carries up to 15 years in jail although critics say the law is frequently abused by politicians since a complaint can be filed by anybody against anybody else, no matter how trivial or tangential the alleged disrespect to the crown.
An Australian author was sentenced to three years in jail Monday for defaming the crown prince in a 2005 novel that only sold seven copies.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said he wants to “strike the balance between upholding the law and allowing freedom of expression,” although his administration has blocked 2,300 websites deemed critical of the palace.
His Justice Minister wants to toughen the law, intensifying criticism of the Democrats as opportunists who would not have come to power in December without the help of the army, which removed elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup.
Even though the king said in 2005 he should not be above criticism, the number of lese majeste cases filed has mounted dramatically during the political turbulence that has followed the putsch.
Police frequently feel obliged to investigate every complaint, no matter how trivial, since not to do so might expose them to allegations of disrespect.
Others to have fallen foul of the lese majeste law in the last year include a pro-Thaksin minister, a British correspondent for the BBC and a democracy activist who refused to stand up for the king’s anthem at the start of a movie screening.
Editing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani