Thais test taboos as war on royal slurs heats up

Tue Dec 6, 2011 9:34pm EST
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By Martin Petty and Natnicha Chuwiruch

BANGKOK (Reuters) - From a windowless room in a Bangkok suburb, computer technicians scour thousands of websites, Facebook pages and tweets night and day. Their mission: to suppress what is regarded as one of Thailand's most heinous crimes -- insulting the monarchy.

The government calls this its "war room," part of a zero-tolerance campaign that uses the world's most draconian lese-majeste laws to stamp out even the faintest criticism of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch.

Critics call it a "witch hunt" and few are spared if they fall foul of the process. Sixty-one-year-old cancer sufferer Amphon Tangnoppaku, dubbed "Uncle SMS," was jailed for 20 years last month for sending text messages deemed to have disparaged Queen Sirikit.

The ruling prompted outrage. On Saturday, Human Rights Watch criticized the "shocking" severity of recent penalties for lese-majeste and urged Thailand to amend the law.

The offence is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, possibly more if there is violation of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which has been used to block more than 70,000 websites, many for lese-majeste, others for pornography or cyber fraud.

Washington-based pro-democracy group Freedom House says the two laws give Thai authorities "carte blanche to clamp down on any form of expression."

Some Thais had hoped Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party members are among those accused of lese-majeste, would reform the law. But she is treading carefully, aware her opponents in the military and royalist establishment could seize on any hint of disloyalty to the monarchy to bring her down.

Independent analysts say the use of lese-majeste could undermine those it was designed to protect if the backlash against the law grows.   Continued...