Thai political prisoner in the New York Times-Prachatai

September 22, 2009

There She Was: Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul on The New York Times

Pravit Rojanaphruk

Prachatai: September 1, 2009

There she was, in a tiny undated black and white photo, slightly over an inch in height and less than an inch in width, still smiling. Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, aka Da Torpedo, a former journalist and a supporter of ousted and convicted former premier Thaksin Shinwatra. Daranee’s posture is slightly Mona Lisa-like – which is rather bizarre, given the kind of news she found herself in.

The small news article on page A5 of The New York Times (August 29, 2009) seemed to be more bizarre to non-Thai readers, however.

“Thailand: 18 Years for Insulting King” was the headline on the two-paragraph article written by Thomas Fuller, the Times’ correspondent to Thailand.

The article is worth reading in full – or nearly, at least. [See online version here]

“A political activist was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Friday for damaging the “reputation and honor” of the king and queen of Thailand, the latest in a string of convictions for insulting the country’s monarchy. A three-judge panel said the activist, a former journalist named Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, [pictured] left, insinuated in a speech last year that King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit had —–(the writer’s censored ONE word from Fuller’s article due to lese majeste law) a coup that unseated former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She said she would appeal.

“Thailand has long maintained some of the world’s strictest laws against insulting the royalty, but only in recent years – amid political turmoil and concerns about the 81-year-old king’s health – have they been put to use with such regularity.”

Well, so what do you think, dear readers?

One friend, an Ivy-league educated white female American said the article reminded her of some news from North Korea.

“It’s the sort of absurd… I mean it’s horrendous. She cannot be sentenced to 18 years for insulting the king today [in the 21st century, that is, or the 26th  Buddhist century as it is in Thailand].”

“Small minded” was her next two words, as she compared the situation to Cuba.

“It’s silly, it’s provincial… it’s not necessary… That’s the last way to do it.”

“Medieval” was her next word by this colleague who asked not to be name (so her possible future vacation in Thailand will not be jeopardized), followed by: “It teaches the sort of child-like mentality. It’s crippling to the developing of democracy.”

Next: a New Zealand female colleague:

“It’s making a mountain out of a molehill,” she told me. “I just think it’s ridiculous. [It] really paints Thailand in a really bad light. If [the law existed] in the U.K., half country would be in jail. I wonder if by having this law… it’s like they [again, I censored three words due to lese majeste law] hide. If they’re good monarchy and great people then it shouldn’t matter what people say. It’s like [censored four words again] hide.”

Then a Mexican: “I mean it’s a shame in general. I guess from a modern Western viewpoint it’s a shame that people cannot speak out at a perceived [censored one keyword again]. It’s the system which brand those statements in stone. They do undermine themselves by doing that. You’re actually giving power to the words. It becomes a form of social control.”

Ah, social control, the ‘control’ word…

Again, if Daranee, eventually requested and received a royal pardon, then it would be okay, right? Well, she would still have been in jail for a year if not more.

Daranee’s “defamation act” aside, one must think how the law is hampering free speech, equality under law and democracy. One must ask how it is affecting Thai people’s ability to think, speak and write.

As to what part of the brain lese majeste law is affecting Thai people, it may be up to neuro-scientists to conclude. But to the hearts of Thais who value free speech and equality, it hurts. Some of what Daranee spoke may be rude and crude, and could even be misleading, but what does the future hold for a society with such repressive law?

Lese majeste law perpetuates the culture of fear and nurture excessive and un-checked flattery and portrayal of the monarchy institution. Thais must ask themselves if this is something they can or should be proud of – and what to do about it.

Tell me, how can anyone be proud of such law. Tell me, how such a law with its harsh punishment will advance the cause of liberty, democracy and equality. And tell me what lese majeste law do to your critical mind.

Pravit Rojanaphruk is currently a Katherine Fanning Fellow at Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. The article is written, pro bono, for news.

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