Thailand’s Crackdown on Free Speech Is Escalating

A woman’s seven-year prison sentence for a critical Facebook post is indicative of a broader trend.

Women holding birthday signs for King Bhumibol Adulyadej during his 88th birthday celebration on Dec. 5. (Photo: Vichan Poti/'Pacific Press'/Getty Images)

Dec 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

In June, a 49-year-old accountant and single mother in Thailand’s Samut Prakan province was arrested without a warrant and taken to a military base. Her crime? Posting negative comments about the Thai monarchy on Facebook, according to The Associated Press. On Tuesday, the woman, identified as Chayapha C. was sentenced to seven years in prison and charged with “lèse-majesté,” or insulting the monarchy, under a statute that human rights advocates say has been used more frequently since the military took over the government in a May 2014 coup d’état.

“The U.N. High Commissioner has stated he is appalled by the shockingly disproportionate prison terms handed down this year in lèse-majesté cases in Thailand,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told Reuters. Since the coup, at least 14 of these cases have been brought before Thai military and criminal courts, according to Human Rights Watch. The charge carries a sentence of three to 15 years in prison.

Just a day before Chayapha C.’s sentencing, a factory worker was arrested for allegedly posting disparaging material on Facebook that insulted King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog. In July, a 27-year-old man was sentenced to 15 years for posting insulting messages about the monarchy on Facebook. As Bhumibol’s health has declined, anxiety about the fate of the Thai monarchy has contributed to the rising number of lèse-majesté sentences. Public speculation about who will succeed the ailing 87-year-old ruler is subject to punishment under the lèse-majesté statute, The New York Times reported.

An article about the alleged dog defamation was blocked by a Thai printer in Tuesday’s issue of The International New York Times. Reuters reports that this is the third time in a month printers have run blank space in place of an article in the paper.

While human rights advocates see the increase of sentences as an attack on freedom of speech, Thai military officials have argued that the law, which is part of the country’s interim constitution, is necessary for national security.

“We need this law in Thailand in order to protect the monarchy, which is the love of all Thais,” junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree told Reuters.

According to Human Rights Watch, citizens charged with lèse-majesté are often held without bail for months while they await trial. More than 300 people have been detained since the coup for suspected disrespect of the monarchy or involvement in protests.