Insult the King and… Go Directly to Jail

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Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Thai royal nurses holding candles at a celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s eighty-fifth birthday, Bangkok, December 2012

She sits calmly smiling at me across the lunch table: quiet, matter-of-fact, professional. Yet just a week ago, Joop’s husband, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, was condemned to ten years in prison for lèse-majesté—plus a further year on a related defamation charge. What was Somyot’s mortal insult to Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch?

A magazine he edited had published two articles: one, a tale about an unnamed family that kills millions of people to maintain itself in power, the other, a fictional story about a ghost that haunts Thailand and plots massacres. The court held that both referred to the king and his Chakri dynasty, and that merely publishing them merited ten years in prison under Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code. As the Good Soldier Švejk exclaims in Jaroslav Hašek’s classic novel: “I never imagined that they’d sentence an innocent man to ten years. Sentencing an innocent man to five years, that’s something I’ve heard of, but ten, that’s a bit too much.”

At first it might be tempting to view Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws as a minor eccentricity in the exotic setting of The King and I, the self-styled “land of smiles,” a favored holiday destination for millions of Western tourists. But when you meet someone whose husband has been unjustly sentenced to more than a decade in prison, the smile is wiped off your face. As you look a little closer, you realize that all this is deathly serious. In a sense, the political future of an important Southeast Asian country hinges on that one small article of the criminal code. And these days, Anna, the governess in The King and I, might be locked up just for singing “Shall We Dance?”—let alone “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”—on a YouTube video.

As David Streckfuss explains in Truth on Trial in Thailand, his richly informative book on lèse-majesté in Thailand, early-twentieth-century edicts to protect the absolute monarch of Siam were originally inspired by European examples—notably that of Wilhelmine Germany. But over the last one hundred years, European and Thai law and practice have evolved in opposite directions. While lèse-majesté laws remain nominally on the statute books of some European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain, you can in practice say whatever you like about the queen of the Netherlands, who earlier this year announced her abdication, or the king of Spain—not to mention his son-in-law, the Duke of Palma, currently on trial for corruption. (Try that on the crown prince of Thailand.)

They order things differently in Thailand. Article 112 of the 1957 criminal code prescribed imprisonment “not exceeding seven years” for “whosoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent.” In a 1976 amendment, the prison term was increased to …

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