Thais on collision course over lese-majeste law
Known in Thailand as 'Uncle SMS', Amphon 'Akong' Tangnoppakul died last week in detention, less than six months after being sentenced to 20 years in jail for violating the lese-majeste law. Akong was accused of sending four text messages to a secretary of former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, messages that were deemed to be extremely insulting to the queen.
Lese-majeste, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory or threatening comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Each text message cost Akong five years' imprisonment.
This was the harshest punishment so far in a country where the benevolence of the king and his love for Thais is supposedly boundless. As Akong maintained his innocence, royalist judges decided to hand down a maximum sentence and refused to grant bail despite his poor health.
Akong complained of pain in his stomach a few days before his death and it has been reported that he probably died of liver cancer. Immediately after his death, anti-Article 112 groups voiced their anger mostly through social media networks, and called for a protest outside a Thai court to seek justice for the dead man and urgent reform of the draconian law.
The death of Akong came at a critical time in Thai politics in which reverence for the monarchy is declining. Since the military coup of 2006, the royalists have exploited the royal institution to alienate their opponents. But in so doing, the monarchy has become even more politicised. Worse, the royalist elite have chosen to silence critics of the monarchy with the lese-majeste law. There were almost 500 cases involving the law in 2010 - the highest among countries with such a law.
Critics say the law can be easily manipulated, and a group of young law professors at the esteemed Thammasat University has proposed guidelines to reform the law. But these professors have been intimidated by royalists, and one was attacked.
The situation reveals an ugly truth: Thailand is dangerously polarised and the monarchy - a key actor in the political domain - has continued to deepen that polarisation.
A number of royalists have celebrated the death of Akong, saying he deserved to die because of his disrespect for the royal family.
Meanwhile, the anti-Article 112 groups plan to organise a new round of rallies on the streets of Bangkok if the government of Yingluck Shinawatra fails to amend the lese-majeste law. Violent clashes between the two sides of the divide seem inevitable.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies