Thai Police Probe US Envoy over Comments about Monarchy Law

By Grant Peck 10 December 2015

BANGKOK — Thai police said Wednesday they are investigating comments made by the US ambassador about a law that bans criticism of the monarchy, but don’t expect to bring charges because he has diplomatic immunity.

Police spokesman Maj-Gen Piyaphan Pingmuang said they are investigating a Nov. 25 speech by Ambassador Glyn Davies because they had received a complaint that it violated the same law by defaming the monarchy, known as lese majeste.

The diplomatic contretemps is the latest dust-up between Washington and one of its most durable allies in Asia. US criticisms of military takeovers in 2006 and last year have been mild, with only the softest sanctions applied, such as the cancellation of high-level meetings. But because the military actions were framed in part as a defense of Thailand’s much revered monarchy, royalists treat American concerns as interference and culturally insensitive.

Davies, who took up his posting in September, said in the course of a wide-ranging speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club praising US-Thai relations that America is concerned about long prison sentences given by military courts to civilians under the law. Since the military seized power in a coup last year, a number of people have received sentences of more than 25 years for comments on the Internet found to have violated the law. The ambassador also spoke out for freedom of expression.

Royalists have protested at the US Embassy over the ambassador’s speech, as well as in the press and on social media.

“Somebody reported it, so they have to check,” police spokesman Piyaphan said of the complaint, adding that it was clear that after the investigation is finished, police know nothing further can be done because of diplomatic immunity.

Police Maj. Kamthorn Niyom of the Crime Suppression Division, who sent a request to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for a tape of Davies’ speech, said they were acting in order to ascertain what was actually said.

“We have to do our job because someone filed a complaint,” he explained.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “The US government has the utmost respect for the Thai monarchy. Ambassador Davies reiterated long-standing US policy on the issue of freedom of expression.”

Kirby referred further questions to Thai authorities.

Supporters of last year’s military takeover have been critical of even the mildest official US expressions of support for a democratic process. Those who took part in the protest at the embassy included prominent figures involved in militant street demonstrations against the last elected government that eventually led to the coup.

Because the issue of the monarchy is so sensitive, police have rarely if ever refused to look into a case for fear of coming under criticism themselves. In what reformists cite as a weakness in the lese majeste law—which calls for imprisonment for up to 15 years for each offending action—any person can lodge a complaint. Politicians sometimes use the law to attack their rivals.

The complaint against Davies was filed by Sonthiya Sawasdee, a representative of a fringe group that calls itself the Federation to Monitor the Thai State.

In a statement Wednesday, the human rights group Amnesty International said, “The fact that allegations of lese majeste can be made for raising legitimate concerns highlight the current absurd extremes of Thailand’s restrictions on freedom of expression.”

Until about a decade ago, relatively few lese majeste cases were prosecuted. But the 2006 coup that ousted popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra dragged the monarchy into politics when his alleged disrespect for the institution was cited as one of the reasons for ousting him. A long-running struggle for power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents has seen the latter frequently invoke the protection of the throne as one of their goals. As a result, the monarchy’s reputation as a unifying institution suffered as the country became polarized along political lines.

The monarchy has become an even more sensitive issue as the ailing health of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has triggered worries about the royal succession.